It seems to have been forgotten that what Boris Johnson actually said this week, was that we shouldn’t ban the burka. Shouldn’t. As in Muslim women should continue to enjoy the right to exercise their freedom of both religion and self-expression.
It is interesting that others do not afford Boris this same luxury. He may have put his comments somewhat indelicately, without the common courtesy most of us would prefer – it feels akin to pointing at a fat person in the street, or mocking somebody’s knock-off trainers. But if these kind of insults are to be suddenly disallowed, then we’d better do a clean sweep too of most tabloids, magazines, and the entire spectrum of reality TV.
It’s not the rudeness that is agitating.
So what is it? Is it the useful distraction from Corbyn’s anti-Semitism mess? Is it the revenge of the Remainers? Or, is it symptomatic of a creeping tendency not only to stay silent in the face of opposing values, but to suppress our own to facilitate them?
Behind the language of post boxes and bank robbers, the point with which Boris seems to have most offended, is in his admission that, to him, the wearing of the burka is ridiculous. It looks silly, and it reeks of oppression, he claims.
The same might be said of some of the get-ups within our own Chasidic communities. They are less extreme, and thus less confronting to outsiders, but seeing women wearing wigs, full-length sleeves, and tights, in the middle of a park during a summer of record-breaking temperatures, it is hard not to wonder about the rationality of such choices. It is hard to understand how a woman, without the specific conditioning of her community, would make this choice. It is harder still to understand how any woman would choose, really choose, to view life through a narrow, mesh-screened slat.
The imam of the Oxford Islamic Congregation, Dr Taj Hargey, wrote in a letter to The Times this week that the burka and niqab are pre-Islamic, un-Muslim garments, prohibited at the Kaaba in Mecca. He said that by allowing them in Britain they are “precipitating security risks, accelerating vitamin D deficiency, endorsing gender-inequality and inhibiting community cohesion.” And he thinks they should be banned.
Like Boris, this is, for me, too far. Enforcing any kind of public dress code upon women, or anybody, breaches a higher value of liberty than banning it would protect. But this is not to say that the burka is not an oppressive thing. Particularly on the stage of gender equality. To be clear, we are not talking about the hijab, which covers the head only and could be compared to the wearing of a long skirt – a symbol of modesty, of religiosity, but still potentially wholly in line with Western values. The burka screens the entire person from the world, and the extremity of the garment suggests an extremity of thought behind it that deserves challenge.
No matter if justification can be plucked from the Koran or the Torah or any other ancient text, a piece of clothing that is largely explained by the wish not to arouse male desire, is no different from the argument that if a woman wears a short skirt, she’s asking for it. We must stop burdening women with responsibility for the actions of men.
Of course clothing is not the only inequality present within communities who follow such dress codes. As can be witnessed from the finally lifted driving ban in Saudi Arabia, and the persisting system of male guardianship there, these, or similar garments, are quite literally only the surface layer. So in a nation that supposedly champions freedom and equality, we owe these women, and Chasidic women, and all women and men in Britain, the debate about it.
Because if the choice is really freely made, then it will stand up to robust questioning. If it is not, then it conveys to people from these communities, the important recognition that most of us in Britain find the burka far beyond the realms of what might be considered a rational choice. For anybody questioning their own need to wear it, or challenging any other oppressive actions within their family or community, this could be a lifeline. Even, perhaps especially, if it comes via Boris’s tasteless brand of mockery.
Because that is what we do in Britain. That is what we are allowed to do. Not tell people what to wear. But to tell them what we think of what they wear.
It may not always be polite – and Boris’s delivery in more akin to schoolyard skirmish than venerated statesman. But we do Muslims, Jews, and everybody else a disservice by dismantling our own fought-for freedoms. If we are so anxious not to arouse offence, not to challenge a text, not to call out a clear system of patriarchy, then we might as well all be wearing burkas too.
Listen to this week’s episode of The Jewish Views Podcast here: