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A British Muslim’s Perspective on the Burkha Debate

Once again, the Burkha finds itself in the headlines in Britain. On this occasion, it was the comments of former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that have instigated the drama. In a column for The Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson caused controversy when he compared women who wore it to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. As Boris anticipated this made headline news.

Being an observer of British politics, it was quite clear to me what was going on. Behind a buffoonish exterior, Boris Johnson is a calculating, cynical and ambitious operator. Some have said that the closer you get to him the ‘nastier he is’. Many of his stances and decisions in politics are motivated less by principle but more by his own personal ambition. It’s no secret that he aspires to be Prime Minister.

Having in recent weeks resigned as Foreign Secretary over Brexit he met with Steve Bannon (a former advisor to Trump and known racist). Bannon most likely advised him to position himself as a British ‘Trump’ to help him realise his ambitions; which would mean embracing a divisive politics. This may well work for Boris Johnson (after all it has worked for the likes of Trump, Modi, Orban and Salvini) but it makes life very difficult for those on the receiving end of his comments; in this instance Muslim women, more specifically those who wear the Burkha. I have little doubt Boris doesn’t care.

First and foremost, the very terminology of this discourse is misguided. Very few people in Britain wear the Burkha (the Burkha covers the whole face including the eyes) Johnson’s comments, and the debate generally is about the Niqab (which is a similar garment, but the eyes are visible). Although precise figures are not available, it’s apparently only a small minority of British Muslim women who wear the Niqab. In other words, a minority of a minority.

On its own, this is at best a marginal issue, however, by attacking women wearing the Niqab, the attack by implication is also on perceived ‘Islamic values’. It’s no surprise therefore that some right-wing commentators came out in defence of Johnson with the controversial Conservative MP Nadine Dorries arguing ‘Any clothing that a woman is forced to wear that hides her beauty, and her bruises should be banned and have no place in our progressive and liberal society.’ Her reference to ‘forced’ and ‘bruises’ indicating a pervasive and age-old stereotype about Muslim women: that they are oppressed.

Personally, I have no issue with constructive criticism or discussion on matters of faith. By the same token it’s imperative for somebody of Johnson’s influence to choose his language very carefully particularly when commenting on sensitive issues. His references to ’letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ are far from sensitive, are deeply irresponsible and inflammatory.

The impact of such comments is to increase the pressure, ridicule of and attacks on Niqab clad women. The anti-Muslim hate monitoring group Tell MAMA recorded that women ‘bear the brunt’ of Islamophobic attacks, such attacks had intensified post-Brexit and were more likely to happen to women wearing ‘Islamic clothing’.  Since Boris’s comments, there have already been some incidents (although not necessarily violent) against Muslim women. Tell MAMA has reported a clear uptick in incidents since Johnson’s comments. In the week before his comments, no incidents were reported against women wearing the veil since then at least 4 women have been called ‘letterboxes’.

I’m not a fan of the Niqab, and I don’t think that it is necessarily prescribed by Islam (although I’m no expert on religion: which by nature is inherently complex). I feel that British society prefers subtlety, just like we don’t like people who flash their money we appear to have an aversion to strong religious symbols and expressions. I have seen and worked with many pious Muslim women who wear the Hijab (headscarf) with Western clothes. It is barely visible, doesn’t attract undue attention and is compatible with the Islamic emphasis on striking a balance between Deen (Religion) and Dunya (Society). However, society is not run on my personal preferences, and I feel maturity dictates living with that we don’t like. Therefore, women who choose to wear mini-skirts, for example, must accept other’s right to wear the Niqab and vice versa. Ultimately, however, it is not for the state to dictate what people should/n’t wear: a truly dangerous precedent.

So, are Niqab wearing women oppressed? I don’t buy this argument for several reasons. I accept that in a small number of instances this may well be the case. However, most Muslims in this country (like me) are of Pakistani heritage. Most of the first generation of British Pakistani women wore the Shalwar Kameez (the Pakistani national dress) and still do. Those wearing the Niqab, therefore, are predominantly second-generation Muslim women of Pakistani heritage. Most are British born and educated. If they are oppressed, then why are they not compelled to wear the Shalwar Kameez?

The reasons why some second-generation women choose to wear this garment is complex. It reflects as far as I can see several developments within the British Muslim community. Yes, it is to some extent for religious reasons (no matter how misguided), it also reflects identification with the Arab/Muslim World (particularly important for a generation struggling with their identity), as opposed to their parent’s heritage. It may also reflect defiance; the more Muslims are put under pressure and vilified by the rest of society the more niqabs and beards are becoming visible.

When I lived and worked in Qatar, I observed the Niqab was naturally far more visible. By the same token, many Muslim women weren’t wearing it. If oppressed, then why weren’t they all compelled to wear it in this conservative Islamic ‘Kingdom’? Moreover, many Qatari women were also well educated (often to PhD level) in employment and driving: are these not traditional measures of independence? The Managing Director of my employer (the biggest in Qatar) was a woman. This is nothing new in Islam the Prophet Muhammed’s first wife was a successful businesswoman, and we have seen female Prime Ministers in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan (it’s worth noting that to date the United States has never elected a female President).

Since the norm of female attire in Western societies is the complete opposite to that of traditional ’Islamic’ attire perhaps part of the issue is that Western society and Western women, in particular, find it difficult to accept that some women choose to wear the Niqab.

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