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The Tories have let Boris off the hook – and in doing so proven the party is riddled with Islamophobia

Time and time again, from the top of the organisation to the bottom, the Conservatives have shown their disdain for Muslim women

Samayya Afzal
Friday 21 December 2018 19:15
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Baroness Sayeeda Warsi exposes problems of current 'Islamophobia' definition

According to an independent panel investigation, it is now perfectly reasonable - or actually “tolerant” and “respectful” - to incite hatred against women because of how they choose to dress. This is the message Muslim women have received from yesterday’s decision to clear Boris Johnson of breaching the Conservative Party’s Code of Conduct in a Telegraph article, where he compared those who wear the face veil to bank robbers and letter boxes.

Almost a year before Boris penned this piece, I received a Whatsapp message from a friend sharing a hand-delivered letter titled “Kill scum Muslims” that her sister had received, threatening acid attacks on “anyone who wears the funny black masks around your square & Bradford & other places”. Immediately after Boris’s piece, there were reports of a directly-linked spike in verbal attacks against veil-wearing women across the UK. It’s widely known that Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobic attacks. They may be in the minority, but those who wear the niqab are viciously targeted by the far right – Islamophobes of all descriptions, which very much includes politicians, just can’t seem to look beyond a piece of cloth.

Muslim women have long witnessed their personal clothing choices being dragged into national discussions in a strange mix of racist and sexist commentary. The far right have always capitalised on and exploited Muslim women in a form of gendered Islamophobia, a strain of which depends on convincing them that their bodies belong not to themselves, but as objects for others to liberate. Whether this takes the historic form of public unveiling ceremonies in colonial era Algeria, EDL protests encouraging Muslim women to undress and revolt against Muslim men, or articles in mainstream newspapers calling the niqab oppressive, the message is clear.

The niqab debate isn’t new, neither is the obsession with how women dress. But I’d expect more self-reflection from a political establishment that spent an entire afternoon debating whether the leader of the opposition did indeed call the prime minister a “stupid woman”, while accepting that reducing swathes of Muslim women to inanimate objects like letterboxes is just good old fashioned free speech.

By ignoring the 100 niqab-wearing women who sent an open letter to chairman Brandon Lewis demanding the whip be withdrawn from Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party has once again failed Muslims who have time and again called for firm action and an inquiry into the Islamophobia propagated in what seems like the highest ranks of the party itself.

Questions are now being raised on the composition of the independent panel and whether a public request from the Muslim Council of Britain to “include people who are aware of the seriousness of the issue and its effect on society” was ignored. How many of the lawyers on the panel are cognisant of the challenges Muslim women face, particularly the ones who find themselves altering their lifestyles and routines to avoid attacks in the aftermath of so-called satirical comments?

There are those who will still argue that Muslim women who cover their faces are oppressed, but it is possible to have a nuanced discussion on the niqab by centring the experiences and voices of the women themselves. The research and writing by Dr Irene Zempi has been particularly instructive in understanding choice, agency and identity of women who wear the veil, a lesson that some politicians sorely need.

Some will say Boris was defending this minority of Muslim women by arguing against a ban, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding of advocacy on behalf of marginalised or oppressed communities. You don’t help minorities by dehumanising their most visible targets of abuse. You don’t help minorities by doing the work of Islamophobes, othering and describing them as criminals. You certainly don’t help minorities by hoping that “one day, they’ll go” - Boris’ final words on the matter.

After almost weekly Islamophobic incidents documented in the Conservative Party earlier this year plaguing its MPs, councillors, activists and supporters, it is now up to Theresa May to launch an inquiry into Islamophobia to show that it is not institutional or endemic within the government. Inaction has followed accusations of Islamophobia against Zac Goldsmith, Bob Blackman, Ben Bradley, Nadine Dorries and now Boris Johnson. If the Conservative Party is unable to even adopt a definition of Islamophobia introduced by the APPG on British Muslims, backed by over 75 academics and 750 Muslim organisations, then what trust remains?

Samayya Afzal is the community engagement manager for the Muslim Council

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