The Great Burkini Debate

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This is Mozart, my new feathered friend who has been my company this past week. There is no great reason for a photo of Mozart other than I think he is beautiful and that it is pretty cool to be able to share your breakfast with a parrot. He has also been my companion while listening to the great burkini debate. You might think that the conversation has been one sided but actually Mozart had much to say on the topic.

Today the French government decided that it was not the done thing to ban the burkini after all but it has thrown many discussions up into the air and left more room to polarise the nations. That is probably their intent after all, rather than anything to do with what anyone was wearing. There was some weak point about someone hiding a bomb under their burkini which they wouldn’t be able to do with a swimming costume but then you could stick a bomb in your sandwiches if you were that keen on blowing the beach up so that doesn’t really hold. There was another argument about it being unsanitary to go swimming fully clothed but given the state of the mediterranean sea, I’d say it was a good idea to keep your clothes on. The other argument was that it is not the done thing to do in France which is a free country and women should not be forced to cover up their bodies and this is wear the argument really kicked off.

Nobody should be told what to wear and what not to wear and it pressed people’s buttons all over the place, especially women. Us women have been told what to do for centuries and we are quite clearly bored of it and rightly so. If you wear too many clothes, it’s not right. If you take them off then it’s not right. Somewhere in the middle between loads of modesty and not enough modesty and then everyone is happy until the rules change again and we have to have more arguments. It wasn’t that long ago when it was a scandal for women to wear trousers, when even shapely legs on tables were considered a disgrace. I’m not quite sure how anyone can get uncontrollably excited by shapely table legs but clearly that must have been the thing then and it is the ‘thing’ still in many places. A glimpse of flesh and all hell breaks loose.

This is where I have a bit of a problem with the the great burkini debate. Comparisons have been made between being too undressed and being too dressed. The difference is that it is a very real thing for many women that if they are not dressed enough then their safety, livelihood and, often, lives are at risk. A comparison cannot be made between the two. There have been photos going around the internet of a woman being told to get dressed and of another woman being told to get undressed. The difference is that in one scenario she seriously risks losing her life. One is policed in a way that will affect a woman’s right to marriage, education, safety, dignity and employability. The other is policed legally leading to a fine and public humiliation. Both are utterly unacceptable but the image risks minimising the very serious plight that is the reality of many women. That we find the image of a woman being forced to undress by a bunch of armed men outrageous and this leads to an uproar, despicable as it is, still gives me hope that we will never stand by and let this happen.

I have no idea what it is like to live within a community where your very life is at stake based upon what you wear. I cannot begin to imagine this as I have been lucky enough for this to have not been an issue in my lifetime. Enforcing the burkini ban, even though it has been dismissed the scars will be left, risks driving underground the most vulnerable and silent. Many women have stepped forward to talk about their freedom of choice in wearing the hijab (and I’m sorry if I’m using all the wrong words and terms) and it has been wonderful for their stories to have been heard. The women that we will not hear from, though, are the voiceless, the ones who are not wearing the hijab or burka through choice but through coercion and lack of choice. These women will never get to be heard and if they had any notion of being able to reach out to a community that might be able to offer an alternative, that would be wiped out by feeling that they are no longer able to go out in public wearing what they have to wear. If they are not able to wear what they have to wear to go to school or university then they will no longer have an education and will be driven further underground than they already are unless their families are able to afford to educate them privately. And this is meant to be liberating? For who exactly?

To accept different forms of clothing does not mean that all that goes with it has to be accepted. A weak comparison, but a comparison all the same, is the Euro debate. I voted to remain but that does not mean that I think that everything about Europe is wonderful and hunky dory. In the same way, I would never condone a ban on people wearing what they want/have to wear but that does not mean that we should ignore all that goes with it. There runs the very real risk of all of the narrative that accompanies clothing being brushed to one side in the furore. For example, it is said that FGM is reported, on average, every two hours in the UK. Every two hours. Every two hours a child is subjected to this in a country where it is against the law. This really is something that should be tackled and shouted about and never ever accepted. These are the issues that sit silently behind the great burkini debate, cloaked in cultural worlds that many feel hesitant to venture into. Just because it is right to oppose the banning  of the burkini/hijab/burka does not mean that it is also right to defend their use. We oppose the ban because nobody, but nobody, tells any woman what they should and should not be wearing. We do not defend their use because there are still a whole list of cultural issues that we are hesitant to tackle that do not have a place in anybody’s world. Of course a ban is ridiculous, and a whole other list of superlatives, but it is also important to acknowledge the oppression behind certain ways of dressing.

If we are to defend the Muslim woman being publicly humiliated and intimidated then we, and that is men and women, must also defend Muslim women being oppressed in their homes, being forced into arranged marriages, being discriminated against in the multitude of ways that is possible. It is a bit like the Black Lives Matter debate and then people popping up with the All Lives Matter response. Yes, of course all lives matter but to dismiss the debate is to dismiss the discrimination and history of people who, increasingly, are not able to have a voice without there being very real consequences.  Live and let live but let us  not ignore the potentially dark and oppressive stuff that is lurking in the background that comes from any angle whatsoever.

Those were the thoughts that me and Mozart had this week. There are pressures from society on the importance of beauty, hiding it or showing it, all over the place. Some pressures can hinder so called progress – just think of something as simple as a bloke having to wear a tie in the workplace – and other pressures have far darker consequences. Think of Mozart and his beautiful feathers. He might have a thing or two to say about his family history. Would he be quite so prized if his feathers were beige all over? Beauty is a thing so glorious, it has inspired art, poetry, sculptures and song since the beginning of time. Why does it have to be twisted into such a weapon of power and persecution? Women have been forever dammed for being too beautiful or not beautiful enough. Let us hope that the great burkini debate will be an opportunity to hear the voices of those who have not yet sung out loud. It has been wonderful seeing women coming together to speak out, may the voices get stronger and stronger.

Turkish Truckers Tea Party

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The other day I went to an impromptu Turkish Truckers Tea Party in a traffic jam by the border with Bulgaria and Romania. I never thought I’d get to say that but it was the most sociable traffic jam I’ve ever been stuck in. I was fed eggs and sausages and a delicious salad washed down with chai. Those Turkish Truckers really know what they’re doing.

I was on my way back from Greece, as an organisation, Hope and Aid Direct, were one man down on their drivers for their return journey and I was lucky enough to be able to go. I was the only woman (trucking is a bloke’s world it would seem) so, for the sake of argument, let’s just say I was a mother trucker for the week… We drove through nine countries in five days, powered by many cups of tea and a general feeling that we were doing the right thing.

Hope and Aid Direct, run by Charles Storer who I met in Lesvos last November, have been running for years taking humanitarian aid out to wherever it is needed and in vast quantities. The organisation is a result of one man’s vision to gather aid, take it in person and make sure that every penny and donation goes to the people who need it. The logistics of it all makes my head spin but I was very happy to play my small part in what is an inspirational project. Charles has been going out to Kosovo for many years but, more recently, has been also going out to Greece to take aid to some of the 60,000 refugees now currently stuck in Greece between borders closed on all sides to them. They are stuck. Greece, which is on its knees, is dealing with thousands and thousands of desperate families and relying almost entirely on aid from the public and on volunteers to man the decks. It is insane at very best.

For one reason and another, I didn’t get to spend much time in the camps but I did go to a Kurdish camp where we were greeted with smiles and children whose buoyancy and resilience never fails to make my jaw drop. Many have been there for months. Charles spoke of the Konik camps in Montenegro where some people have now been for sixteen years, forgotten by all and with a future that does not hold a great deal of hope. As the plight of the refugees in Greece falls away from the public eye, there is a danger that the same fate could happen to these people. The media are no longer focusing on the tens of thousands of refugees whose lives hang in limbo and, unless, you go digging, you could pretend the whole thing is not even happening. Europe has ‘solved’ the whole refugee crisis – which is not a refugee crisis, it is a crisis in lack of humanitarian response – by locking everyone into Greece who have made the perilous journey across the sea and basically forgetting about them. I remember last year, when I was in Lesvos and greeting the boats as they arrived, watching a ferry make its way across the water. A whopping great big safe boat that costs passengers ten euros to make a pleasant and safe crossing but only if you have the right bit of paper. Just inches away from the same stretch of water where the ferry ploughed its calm and solid path, thousands of people, often children, have drowned and at vast financial cost because they do not have the right bit of paper. I continue to be completely baffled by this. Almost three thousand people have died in the mediterranean sea already this year. I’m not sure how anyone can justify this, it makes no sense.

The camps vary hugely in the quality of care available. I only saw the one camp which is somewhere that you would probably be alright for a few days but it is in no way a long term solution. The atmosphere was relatively steady. Other people from the team went to another camp on the same day where the atmosphere was edgy and tense. The temperature was in the high thirties and the sun is relentless if you have precious little respite from it. The following day a young woman died in that camp as a result of the heat. She survived war in her country. She survived the treacherous journey and sea crossing. She died in the place where she was meant to be safe.

I met an elderly lady who said that she had been in the camp for five months. She and her husband had got separated at the border – this happens a lot – and he is now in Germany but she can’t get to him.  She had eyes that stayed smiling even when she wasn’t because of the years of laughter lines on her face and she just shrugged ‘Inshallah.’ The response that indicates that everything is out of her hands and all that remains is a strong faith and hope. Even the darkest of stories needs hope, without hope any one of us would just give up.

In the camp I spoke with a young man who was taking photos. He is seventeen years old and from Homs in Syria and one of those people who just shine out. He said that he was an artist at home but that he has started doing photography as he does not have access to art materials but a volunteer had found him a camera. He showed me some of his art work on his phone and I recognised some of his paintings as I had seen them on social media and they are stunning. He volunteers as an interpreter with the aid organisations and I came away with the feeling that I had been in the presence of someone pretty special. Even in his desperate situation he is doing whatever he can to help, to better what there is of his life and to create a future.

We can take aid and heaven knows it is sorely needed. We can provide toilets and clothes and doctors and all of the things that are most definitely needed but what these people do not have is time. The children are running out of childhood, they need an education, a proper education to be full time at school to be able to have a future. Time is running out for people to be able to create families, have a partner and all the things that so many of us take for granted. The elderly lady is running out of time to be with her husband, it may be that they never get to spend their remaining time together. People in the peak of their youth are running out of time to be able to get qualifications, to get jobs, to be able to use all of that potential that is just sitting around waiting for someone somewhere to come to their senses and provide a humanitarian response to all of this. Families are split up and running out of time to be back together as is only right.

As time passes and politicians continue to wage a war of indifference, so many people are running out of time to have some semblance of a dignified life. Like anyone else, these people have planned for many things in their life except that of being a refugee. Please do not be afraid of refugees. I don’t even like to use that word but I don’t know what other words to use. I have met the most extraordinary, kindest, funniest, most clever people among the refugees that I have met and am continually humbled by the resilience of people in face of such inhospitability as is shown by Europe’s so called laws. Please do not be afraid of refugees. It is the people who are creating refugees that we should be afraid of and I mean really afraid of.