By Celine D Kart
My expression was a paradox of jaw-drop and lack of surprise when I first saw the recent comments from our former Foreign Secretary. Just in case you missed it, Boris Johnson published an article in The Telegraph following Denmark’s ban on the burqa and niqab.
Johnson did not commend Denmark on their burqa ban, though attention should be drawn to some of his comments surrounding the ban. Boris is ‘against a total ban because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about Islam’. Boris notes that a ban restricts a ‘free-born adult woman on deciding what she may or may not wear’. He also notes that it would ‘politicise’ such personal issues of religion and religious dress, as well as risking ‘martyr[dom]’ for those who resist the legislation. Yet contrastingly, he refers to those who choose to wear the veil as ‘bank robber[s]’ and ‘letterboxes’.
Johnson draws upon the ban highlighting the suppression of females through limiting their freedom of expression. Reasonable and agreeable. However, what deems it acceptable, even if not agreeing with such suppression of female dress, as branding women who are still able to exercise their liberty as these objects? Further, since the article, Johnson has refused to comment or explain his justification for such connotations. He has since appeared publicly, greeting reporters with a tray of cups of tea, but refusing to answer questions. This demonstrates an intense measure of deflection and control, undoubtedly lacking any accountability. Johnson’s attitude towards the liberty of women’s religious dress is disconcerting and represents a much bigger problem.
Theresa May has been quick to vocalise her discontent, strongly prompting for an apology.
Somewhat predictably, Johnson’s comments have received dramatic coverage from both ideological ends. Theresa May has been quick to vocalise her discontent, strongly prompting for an apology, though is yet to receive one; publicly. Former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has expressed grave concern over potential Johnson leadership in light of the comments, threatening his own resignation from the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg has defended Johnson, calling the response a ‘show trial’. Muslim leaders have called for a full inquiry into the comments.Johnson’s father is one of a notable few who have congratulated his son and prompted for greater conservatism regarding wearing the veil.
Being of Middle-Eastern ethnicity myself, and from an Islamic family, I have seen how religious dress can be used to liberate, but it can also be used to supress.
Being of Middle-Eastern ethnicity myself, and from an Islamic family, I have seen how religious dress can be used to liberate, but it can also be used to suppress. Compulsory dress for women in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and war-torn countries in which women, and men, are fighting for the exercise and expression of their religion is no secret. I have been the ear to a friend who confessed she feels uncomfortable for having to wear her burqa in the family home when her male relatives are present. True, the burqa, hijab and niqab are pivotal for the physical identity of women, but what about the woman who lies behind it? She is so much more than a piece of clothing. When you criticise a woman’s choice to wear religious dress, you are also criticising an exercise of liberty.
Perhaps the best way to describe Boris’ stance is a clash between moral and social conservatism. He grapples with his personal view of women’s liberty whilst evidencing his known desire for greater social conservatism; and Conservatism. He looks to the contrast between a desire for wanting women to have more personal autonomy, whilst wanting to sustain religious and social conservatism within British society. One can draw irrevocable connection between such distinction and the rising tumult of ideologies following the Brexit debate; specifically surrounding immigration. Regardless of Boris’ personal and political stance, the broad consensus of respecting individual choice, personal autonomy and exercise of civil liberties, including freedom of expression, must be paramount. With this, one cannot limit this to female dress or choice.
Boris completely overlooks the motive behind wearing the veil, and seemingly views it as compulsory as opposed to personal choice. Additionally, he overlooks wider issues surrounding religious dress. We may question the significance of the ban if it were sexually reversed. What if it were a ban imposed on male religious dress? If, for example, the turban was banned, or the Jewish cap? Considering such bans are introduced by male figures, this seems unlikely. Further, if bans were introduced on other religious dress, this then raises the next question: What is the limit? Amnesty International have called the bans on full face veils out as violations of international human rights law. Is this insufficient to prevent the bans? Where does one draw the line with preventing one’s freedom of expression?
The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee rightfully comments that Boris has brought light to the already-existing dehumanisation of women within religion. The burqa bans in countries that have introduced it (France, Belgium, Chad, Novara (Italy), to name a few) represent a divide between the East and West, as well as liberal and conservative ideologies. In the East, we see women forced to wear the veil by similar classes and positions as those who choose to ban it in the West; usually of which are male. In Iran, a recent movement has culminated which shows women removing their veil and waving it in a flag-like nature; risking arrest; or ‘martyr[dom]’.
Somewhat anomalistic, the Turkish government lifted a civil service burqa ban in 2013. The ban was first introduced by Atatürk, a known liberal, to reduce religious symbolism in the workplace. Thus, many have concluded the reversal to be a backlash against liberalism, others have commended him for encouraging more conservative women back into the civil service. Despite which way one’s opinion lies, this still shows tension between national religion and the state, and differing perspectives in eastern and western ideologies. Why is it our perception differs when considering burqa bans compared to legislation forcing women to wear the veil? The two are dichotomies of the identical. Something like this seems fictional, The Handmaid’s Tale-esque, yet it is very much a reality. This should not be the accepted norm.
One can recognise the paradoxical nature of such contrast, such divide, yet one cannot escape the notion that both limitations are still undoubtedly attempts to suppress a woman’s choice. Our opinion on such limitations ultimately varies with one’s opinion of religious expression. Here, we shall refrain from deep analysis of the Qur’an, but it is significant to note many interpretations of translations state the wearing of hijab, niqab and burqa is not compulsory.
A popular consensus on translation states a woman must dress modestly, which many argue can be achieved without wearing the veil.
A popular consensus on translation states a woman must dress modestly, which many argue can be achieved without wearing the veil. However, this still surpasses the value of a woman’s liberty to decide her own expression and commitment to her own religion. The same mode of thought can be applied to all religious dress. It would be impossible to brand a woman’s preference within Islam due to the multi-faceted nature of Islam itself. Sunnism and Shiaism differ just as Baptism differs from Roman Catholicism or Protestantism. As well as representing the divide between East and West, the differing opinions of the ban also represents the disparity between perceptions of religion and religious sects. If one believes it to be ridiculous to prevent a Christian woman from dressing modestly, one should be equally outraged by the burqa bans.
Regardless of one’s opinion on burqa bans, we can flip the same coin and thank Boris for evidencing an aspect of society which deems it acceptable to both ridicule and underline the objectification of women within religious sects. Fundamentally we must question why male figures believe it acceptable to ban or force the religious dress of women, and why others believe it acceptable to comment in a derogatory fashion. And regardless of whether one believes it acceptable to dictate a choice of what one must and must not wear, we can take a unified stance in believing Boris’s comments highlighted a much bigger problem of female objectification, suppression and control. This, in its current form, is not, and never will be, acceptable.
Photographs: Arno Mikkor via Flickr, Institute of Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion via Flickr