Kathy Sheridan: Imagine if Boris Johnson is right about the burqa?

Dogwhistle signal sent not by hack or clown but by former foreign secretary

Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson: in wake of his remarks, he offers tea not adult words to journalists. Photograph: Peter Nicholls

Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson: in wake of his remarks, he offers tea not adult words to journalists. Photograph: Peter Nicholls

 

Watching Boris Johnson offer mugs of tea to door-stepping journalists outside his country home was the latest in a series of “shoot me now” modern political vignettes.

This was not about something jolly like an extra-marital fling or some private fetish. His comparison of burqa-wearing women’s appearance to letterboxes and bank robbers had become the number-one story in Britain.

It may surprise the many who failed to read his Daily Telegraph column but he argued against a ban on the full-face veil. Leaving aside his confusion of the burqa with the niqab, imagine if he is right ?

Women in niqab at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, after the Danish parliament banned the wearing of face veils in public.
Women in niqabs at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark, after the Danish parliament banned the wearing of face veils in public in May 2018.

When I wore a burqa briefly in Afghanistan, it made day-to-day life a whole lot easier. The drive-by hisses and heckles – roughly approximating to “whore” – ceased. Male cyclists stopped aiming themselves at me since I no longer presented the hot provocation of a large, enveloping scarf and loose robes. Then again, by adopting a garment that “erases women from society”, as Mona Eltahaway, the Egyptian-born author and commentator once put it, I had become a non-person. Aside from the maddening efforts to engage with interviewees, there was the severely limited vision, the sidling into gutters and constant inhalation of sweaty polyester. Not to mention the simmering rage that any functioning adult could deem this acceptable. Either way you lose.

Johnson wrote that he had found no scriptural authority for face-veiling in the Koran

So when women wear this garment in western societies, of course it raises questions. Is there coercion? Is it a form of identity politics? Acquiescence with a particular ideology that deems this the highest and purest form of Islam (for women only naturally)? What does that choice – assuming it’s a genuine choice – say to women in countries who risk being flogged or worse for non-compliance ?

Scriptural authority

Johnson wrote that he had found no scriptural authority for face-veiling in the Koran. Respected Muslim scholars have long stated this. He just believes in a woman’s right to choose, in this case. So what’s the problem?

His column was inspired apparently by the recent Danish ban but it’s only the latest country to do so. In Belgium, supporters of the 2011 prohibition – at a time when only 250 women wore the full-face veil – describe it simply as a ban on face coverings. The carefully worded law prescribes a fine of up to €25 and/or imprisonment of up to seven days for those who “unless otherwise provided for by law, enter the places accessible to the public with their faces completely or partly covered or hidden, so that they are urecognisable” .

In the Netherlands, a partial ban – in schools, hospitals and on public transport – also applies to those in helmets or ski masks on the street. In France, any woman who leaves her home with her face hidden risks sanction. In Germany, Angela Merkel supports a ban “wherever it is legally possible”. Bavaria has prohibited full-face veils in schools, polling stations, universities and government offices. In famously tolerant Canada, Quebec requires people using or giving public services to show their faces. The move to ban is accelerating.

Is facial recognition in social interactions of such over-riding importance that it trumps other rights? The European Court of Human Rights says yes. Four years ago, it upheld the French ban, ruling it did not violate a woman’s freedom of religion and expression. Last year, in two cases taken against the Belgian ban, the ECHR ruled it was not an infringement on human rights. The government, it stated, was entitled to impose restrictions aiming to ensure the principles of “living together” and the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others” and had been responding “to a practice that it considered to be incompatible, in Belgian society, with social communication and more generally the establishment of human relations, which were indispensable for life in society . . . essential to ensure the functioning of a democratic society”.

Boris Johnson who has come out against calls to ban face-covering garments like the burka in public places. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Boris Johnson has come out against calls to ban face-covering garments like the burka in public places. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Derisive language

So it’s hardly a surprise that Boris Johnson was blowing bubbles at rulings of the European Court of Human Rights while collecting bonus bubbles for dumping on other EU countries wrestling with their own domestic politics. Or that he managed to send a loud dogwhistle to his base by couching his counsel of “tolerance” in derisive language. It’s just classic old having-his-cake-and-eating-it Johnson.

It’s hardly a surprise Boris Johnson was blowing bubbles at rulings of the European Court of Human Rights while collecting bonus bubbles for dumping on other EU countries

For those defending the women-looking-like-letterboxes/bank-robbers line as a “joke”, the answer is that he is not some slobby stand-up paid for laughs from a niche crowd, nor a mere hack. He is a recent foreign secretary, a ferociously ambitious member of parliament well-aware of harassment and hate-speech against people who look “other”. Now just watch him shoot to the top of that Tory leadership board.

There is no liberal dilemma here. Plenty of Muslim feminists argue that it’s possible to oppose the burqa – even ban it – and Islamophobia at the same time. It’s always about motive and the bona fides of the speaker.

Johnson’s patronising offer of tea in thick mugs to journalists rather than a few authoritative, grown-up words simply confirmed that his leadership ambitions are progressing nicely.

The fact that several journalists took the tea may be some kind of metaphor for that rise and rise.

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