Naked Politics Blogger
Boris Johnson. The man of a million gaffes. His latest comments comparing women in burqas to letterboxes can be added to a long line of (calculatedly?) outrageous comments made by the former foreign secretary. He has previously described the whole of Africa as a country , compared Maori greetings to a pub brawl , and even rugby-tackled a young Japanese boy. As Boris Johnson gains notoriety with throwaway comments, it can be assumed that his authority will diminish. But Johnson’s words have in fact sparked a rise in hate crimes against muslim women, and his comments have prompted a national debate, exposing fault-lines in the Conservative party.
Johnson additionally denounced the burqa as ‘oppressive’, and described the practice of wearing it as a form of ‘bullying’. His attempt to frame issues with the burqa as part of his concern for women’s rights is arguably disingenuous. His record on casual misogyny is just as bad as his way with words. He described women as naturally ‘fickle’, and talked about ‘hot totty’ at the Labour Party conference in 1996. Most worryingly, before adopting a different stance as London Mayor, Johnson wrote an article in The Spectator in 2002 which appeared to dismiss the need to take concerns of FGM seriously. Boris Johnson is no true defender of women’s rights.
But here is where it gets difficult. Sayeeda Warsi fairly points out Boris simply uses ‘muslim women’ as a political subject through which to stake a leadership bid. But by doing this, Boris actually undermines the genuine arguments which seek to explore the issues around the burqa. In a well-observed article, Polly Toynbee argues that neither Boris’s comments nor the burqa itself are friends to a feminist cause. She points out that the burqa has the power to dehumanise and, naturally, anonymise the women it covers.
Of course, there are the frequently cited safety implications of burqas; the muslim-majority countries of Chad and Cameroon have banned the burqa after suicide bombings were carried out by people wearing it. There are the issues of communication that do arise from not being able to see a person’s face. These are often cited as reasons why the burqa is problematic. But in reality, it is likely that fewer than 0.01 % of UK muslim women wear it. So the problems that people have with the burqa probably do not genuinely stem from fears of mass security breaches, or nationwide problems with communication. What these statistics suggest is that there is something symbolic about the burqa which prompts debate.
Now while criticisms of the burqa could be simplistically attributed to racism or islamophobia, it is important to consider some of the reasons why women choose to cover themselves. A few years ago, the Telegraph reported a series of comments left by muslim women online about their reasons for choosing the veil. Although all the comments supplied feature women who vociferously express their role in choosing to cover, many of the reasons given highlight that these choices have complex and sometimes saddening motivations.
Consider that one woman writes that she feels that men treat her ‘with a bit more respect’ because she chooses to cover. Another writes that it ‘definitely keeps away the male attention where they won’t approach you to flirt’. These are not empowered women, making a free choice, but women who make their choice out of something like fear. If women choose to cover themselves in order to avoid unwanted attention and gain ‘respect’ for their personal space, then this cultivates a social climate where only the covered woman is seen as deserving of the respect and rights that should be afforded to all women. Their comments betray mindsets which see men as a threat, rather than simply as fellow human beings. We know that the burqa and many other forms of veiling are marketed under the category of ‘modest-wear’, but the so-called ‘modesty’ of these clothes associates certain garments with good repute and, by default, others with more negative connotations.
Although Boris clamours for the spotlight with his ludicrous comments, don’t let this obscure the reality of the issues at play. Women should always be able to make their own choices about what they wear, but choices are always symptoms of the conditions in which they are made. And if women make choices which imply an increasing desire to separate themselves from men, to dress a certain way out of fear, then this is not symptomatic of conditions which are positive for women.
Christa Ackroyd writes an article in the Yorkshire Post, defending women’s right to wear the burqa. She says that not one single woman has ever told her she was forced to wear it. And this is the problem right here. Defending women’s right to wear the burqa does not mean that one should be ignorant of the fact that those who have no choice probably have no voice either. In the midst of all this clamour, we must remember those who sit behind the silences. The burqa anonymises and hides women, and we need to acknowledge that it may do exactly the same to their opinions and thoughts. So let’s not give Boris more attention than he deserves – he is exploiting a platform few are fortunate enough to have; instead let’s turn our attention to those who may not be able to get involved in this whole ‘burqa brouhaha’.