Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Terry Wogan and the burka

Sunday evening television is pretty poor. I like Heartbeat, because a Spencer Davis Group B side might pop up at any moment, but apart from that it is a washout.

So much so that, back in January, I found myself watching Terry Wogan's Ireland. The shows long ago disappeared from iPlayer, but you can still find a description of episode 2 on the BBC website:
After sharing memories of his buttoned-up childhood holidays in Galway and witnessing a seismic shift in Catholic prudery when 180 Irish ladies throw off all their clothes and take a 'Dip in the Nip' for charity, Terry heads for the border.
And a seismic shift it has been. We were shown a very young Wogan on the beach in a bathing suit that covered his chest for decency's sake. Today the Dip in the Nip women are happy to swim naked to raise money for the Irish Cancer Society.

Wogan, to my mind quie rightly, treated this shift as an unqualified good news story.

There is a great contrast here with our attitudes towards the burka and Muslim women. Liberal opinion was not content with tolerating Catholic prudery because it was "their culture". Liberal opinion tended to make fun of it and campaign to change it. But that is not our reaction with Muslim prudery today.

Of course there is no question of the burka being banned in Britain, and nor should there be. And of course it is people's right to wear whatever they choose.

But that does not exhaust all you can say on the subject. As I wrote in one of my last House Points columns for Liberal Democrat News, there are two important points for liberals to bear in mind here:
The first is to point out that what people wear often tells us something about society. Yes, the hoodie has been demonised, but where it represents an arms race between security cameras and youths it brings us unwelcome news. Maybe it also tells us how much effort teenage boys in some communities have to invest in not catching the eyes of other teenage boys.

And the second is to remember the central place that dress reform once played in radical politics. In the 19th century it was an important movement that aimed to free women from the confining and even crippling fashions that held them back. Radicals then did not shrug, say it was “part of their culture” and move on.
Heresy Corner wrestles with the same dilemmas in a thoughtful post. And Stephen Bigger has written on the issues for education that the Muslim dress code gives rise to.

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