Why I Want to See the Veil Gone from Britain: Harriet Harman Talks to Mary Riddell about Equality for Muslim Women, Why Gordon Brown Will Back Her Plans for Strong New Laws on Flexible Working-And Why He Needs Her as His Deputy to Win the Next Election

By Riddell, Mary | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Why I Want to See the Veil Gone from Britain: Harriet Harman Talks to Mary Riddell about Equality for Muslim Women, Why Gordon Brown Will Back Her Plans for Strong New Laws on Flexible Working-And Why He Needs Her as His Deputy to Win the Next Election


Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)


Even by House of Commons standards, Harriet Harman's meeting room is a temple of masculine austerity. There are only two personalised items: the first is a catering-sized tin of Nescafe; the second an impressionist poster labelled "Van Gogh in Arles". It is an unlikely launch pad for a feminised revolution in British politics, but its occupant aspires to nothing less.

In Harman's view, a fourth-term Labour victory may depend on a woman becoming deputy leader of the party. Or, more specifically, her. She had no qualms about announcing her candidacy. "I just thought: 'Oh, sod it,' and went ahead." The old Harman might not have been so direct, either in her language or in her disdain for the coyness of rivals still prevaricating over whether to run.

"If you dare not stand, or you're calculating on other people's support, you don't believe in yourself." While this may sound like a poke in the eye for any undeclared hopeful, Harman has made clear that back-stabbing will be no part of her campaign. She is simply asserting an independence which includes separating herself from Gordon Brown.

"I'm absolutely not on a ticket with Gordon. I support him, but I'm trying to get elected in my own right. Gordon is such a towering figure, and I'm his ally, so it would be easy for it to look as if I was just his assistant. I've been his deputy before [as chief secretary to the Treasury], so I know I can do that. But I've also got to be able to challenge him if I think he's wrong."

What issues might they differ on? None occurs to her, which suggests that, on policy, you could not put an Arctic Monkeys CD between them. Presumably Brown would be delighted if she were chosen? "I think Gordon should be pleased if I get elected, [partly] because he wants to win the fourth term." Survival is her mantra and trump card. She does not actually say that a Labour government led by two men would lose the next election, but she makes clear that she thinks herself crucial to victory.

"Scottish men from trades unions were coming up to me at conference and saying: 'We think you and Gordon are the best chance.' That wasn't anti-Peter Hain [who has declared], or Alan Johnson or Jack Straw. It was about [winning]. One marginal MP said: 'I want you and Gordon campaigning in my high street.'"

No hiding place

But Harman is no one's docile sidekick. She has, I think, changed a lot. Although a Harman answer to a question can still resemble a Samuel Beckett monologue, she has acquired a leader's boldness. On Islamic dress, for example, she makes Jack Straw's remarks on the niqab seem minor quibbles. Harman would prefer to see the veil gone from British society. "Because I want women to be fully included. If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it."

She is concerned about "the young women whose mothers fought against the veil, and who now see their daughters taking it up as a symbol of their fervent commitment to their religion". Does she think young women are being radicalised in the same way as young men? "It [the niqab] is about radicalisation and solidarity with community. But I don't want people to show solidarity by [wearing] something that prevents them taking their full role as women in society."

The abolition debate, she says, should be led by Muslim women, but there are none in the Commons. "You get there [to veil-free societies] by mobilising so that it doesn't seem anti-Islam ... How can you stand as an MP when men's faces are on posters, and voters can't see yours? How can you [live an equal life] if you can't get a driving licence or a passport? The veil is an obstacle to women's participation, on equal terms, in society."

So, unlike most senior Labour colleagues, she is right behind Jack Straw? "It [his intervention] would have been better if he was a Muslim woman. I can see what backlash it has caused. But I think we just have to make the case. …

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