We need to gain a bit of perspective in this Boris burqa row – Rowan Atkinson is not the enemy

My own family were exiled from Iran because my father made a joke in a newspaper column, but in very different circumstances. And there are times when a burqa joke is genuinely funny – but not in the case of Boris’s

Shaparak Khorsandi
Sunday 12 August 2018 20:01
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Rupa Huq's impersonation of Boris Johnson 'Oh sorry I just shagged your wife'

Rowan Atkinson has defended Boris Johnson’s comments that women in burqas look like letterboxes. He gave his opinion in a letter which, I hope, he put in an actual letterbox and not in a woman’s face (that’s a JOKE).

Boris should issue no apology as far as Atkinson is concerned. “I do think Boris Johnson’s joke about the wearers of the burqa is a pretty good one,” he wrote, while (presumably) running around with a turkey in his head. “You should only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.”

Leaving apologies aside, it looks like Rowan hasn’t set foot in a comedy club since 1984. The joke wasn’t good. It’s an old, obvious observation. I probably did a version of it myself once or twice back in the 1800s when I was a rookie standup and had no idea how to make jokes up yet.

I can’t count the amount of comedians I’ve heard doing a letterbox/burqa gag. The former foreign secretary should, if anything, apologise for picking a tired old hackneyed gag out of the comedy club circuit’s jumble box. Stand up for free speech by all means, Mr Atkinson, but don’t confuse playground insults with humour.

The best burqa gag ever was on Spitting Image. There is a Miss Iran competition. A rubbery Pope is one of the judges and Prince Philip is frantically shouting his hotel number. Then in walk the girls – among them a Miss Belgravia – all wearing burqas and niqabs.

This was 1985. The joke poked fun at the new Iranian regime which enforced the hijab on woman in a country which had been secular, with liberal attitudes, up until 1979. It didn’t mock women who, for whatever reason, feel more comfortable going about their business covered head to toe.

My own family were exiled from Iran because my father wrote a joke in his newspaper column about a man who had his wife punished because a strand of her hair had fallen in to the soup she had served male guests and so they saw her hair. He, too, was criticising a dogmatic, theocratic regime, not a religion. I’m no Quranic scholar, but I do know that the Islamic holy book does not ask women to dress so they are impossible to spot crossing the road in the dark.

Boris’s words weren’t attacking a regime, or showing concern that women are perhaps coerced into covering up: they were grenades thrown by a man still desperate to become prime minister who has chosen to resort to dog-whistle politics. In my humble opinion, his words are getting far more attention than they deserve. He knew what he was doing, he knew the reaction and it’s all going according to plan.

Today, in Iran, women are risking their liberty by publicly taking off their hijabs in protests against the forced covering. Shaparak Shajarizadeh was handed a two-year sentence for protesting in Iran against the hijab. She was released on bail in April and has now apparently left the country as exile is preferable to living in a country where speaking your mind leads to arrest.

I wish those who are now calling Rowan Atkinson a “racist” left and right on social media would show more solidarity and generate more publicity for women like Shaparak.

Don’t think for a minute that I’m on the side of the “last time I looked, Islam wasn’t a race” brigade either. Those numpties are never the sort who would check your philosophical beliefs before they invited you to “go back where you came from” – they would just go on skin colour.

Accusations of racism for Boris “piccaninies” Johnson haven’t arisen merely as a result of the burqa thing. If Boris Johnson actually gave the slightest stuff about women suffering under Islamic regimes or dogma, he wouldn’t have messed up his handling of Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe’s case so royally.

Nazanin, a British citizen, has been imprisoned without charge in Iran for almost two and a half years. Much to the horror of her husband Richard and the rest of us who are desperate for her release, when Boris finally spoke out against her detainment, he said she was “teaching journalism” in Iran. She wasn’t. Boris actually made things worse for her. Did he simply not care about this mum with a funny name who wasn’t born here?

As a mum with a funny name who wasn’t born here either, that was the moment when I was truly sure that his sordid type would never stand by anyone who wasn’t exactly like him. Before that, I held out hope.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, only ever said a word about Nazanin’s case when there was an opportunity to bash Johnson for his mighty gaffe. Before then, and since, we have had tumbleweeds.

Every part of the burqa/letterbox furore is about political warfare. Johnson knew exactly how to rattle the left and it’s working. Now we are calling Rowan Atkinson a “racist” rather than “someone with a different opinion to me”. Rowan Atkinson is not the enemy. We should all have much bigger fish to fry.

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