Burqas have once again hit headlines, thanks to an article written for the Daily Telegraph on Monday by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
While expressing the view that the burqa shouldn’t be banned in the UK, Johnson compared women in burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.”
It sparked a string of complaints and Johnson is now facing a possible investigation into breaches of the Conservative party code of conduct — announced after Prime Minister Theresa May urged him to apologise for his comments, which he refused to do.
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Women who wear veils themselves have spoken out in the wake of Johnson’s comments.
“Women have been choosing to wear the veil out of choice for centuries — it’s never been about the Islaminisation of Europe or Britain, it’s just about a woman who chooses to wear a certain piece of fabric to practise her faith,” Sahar Al-Faifi, from Cardiff, told Al Jazeera.
I’m not a letterbox,— sarah w (@umsafeer) August 7, 2018
I’m not weird,
I’m not a bank robber,
Don’t need to be feared.
I’m just a woman working out in the world,
Leave my clothes alone please,
I’m not a little girl! #myhijabmychoice@BorisJohnson@Telegraph@MichaelRosenYes@TellMamaUK
“I’m a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the niqab — and every day I have to plan ahead. ‘Am I going to be attacked today or am I going to be abused today?’” added Shamin, from the West Midlands. “But it’s my right to be wearing it.”
Under the hashtag #MyHijabMyChoice, women have been calling to be left to make their own, personal decision about whether or not they wear a veil, without the interference of politicians.
In total, there are around 2.7 million Muslim people in the UK. While there are no official estimates of the number of women who wear veils, it’s reportedly very few. In France, for example, which has a larger Muslim population than the UK, it’s no more than a couple of thousand women.
But this debate about burqas stretches significantly further. Against a background of Brexit, which has already divided the nation, it’s become about migration, integration, and Islamophobia — with some raising concerns that it has the potential to encourage violence.
As Baroness Warsi — a lawyer, politician, and member of the House of Lords, who was co-chair of the Conservative party from 2010-2012 — points out in an article written for the Guardian, however, what’s really been highlighted is that “Muslim women are simply political fodder, their lives a convenient battleground on which to stake out a leadership bid.”
For James Kirkup too, director of the Social Market Foundation, an independent London-based think tank, the “suggestion that this is a debate about the welfare and freedom of Muslim women is a little hard to swallow.”
“There are social and economic problems that affect far more Muslim women: They’re more likely to be in poor health, less likely to be employed, and less likely to speak functional English than any other group,” he added, in an article for CNN.
“If a fraction of the political energy expended on the burqa debate focused on those issues, things might just improve for those women, and the country as a whole," he said.
One of these issues, for example, is that Muslim women are the most economically disadvantaged group in British society, according to the women and equalities committee.
“We have found the reasons behind this to be varied and complex,” the committee said in a 2016 report. “They include: discrimination and Islamophobia, stereotyping, pressure from traditional families, a lack of tailored advice around higher education choices, and insufficient role models across education and employment.”
Nearly half of the Muslim population (46%) live in the 10% of the most deprived local authority districts — which has implications for access to resources, school attainment, progression to higher education, and the availability of jobs, according to the social mobility committee.
Muslim women are also 71% more likely than white Christian women to be unemployed, for example, even when they have the same education level and language skills.
“The impact of the very real inequality, discrimination, and Islamophobia that Muslim women experience is exacerbated by the pressures that some women feel from parts of their communities to fulfil a more traditional role,” the report added.
It also highlighted that the Equality Act "applies to everyone and all women, regardless of faith, should be free to make their own choices about all aspects of their lives, including education, employment, and dress, and subsequently be empowered to overcome the disadvantage they may face."
Alan Milburn, former chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said that "young Muslim women face a specific challenge to maintain their identity while seeking to succeed in modern Britain," when the commission released a report into social mobility in Britain in September.
“These are complex issues and it is vital they are the subject of mature consideration and debate,” he added.
Milburn's comments couldn't be more appropriate and resonant now.
There is a world where it could be a good thing that burqas are being discussed — but it’s a world where politicians and the media rationally discuss the socio-economic difficulties facing many British Muslims, without belittling, demeaning, or “othering,” and reach conclusions that can improve people’s lives.