The Boris Johnson veil debate ignores the women at the centre of it

Post-9/11, the veil and the 'submissiveness' of Muslim women became hotbed topics, but can we really afford to continue to make these generalisations?

Rabina Khan
Sunday 12 August 2018 20:06
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Bus driver tells Muslim woman to take off veil in Bristol: 'I don't care because this world is dangerous'

In 2012, Danny Boyle presented a powerful and resonant Olympic Games opening ceremony that portrayed a multicultural Britain. In 2015, Nadiya Hussain became the winner of The Great British Bake Off.

In 2014 and 2015, four young school girls from the East End left to join Isis. And in 2016, David Cameron called Muslim women “submissive”. But anti-Muslim rhetoric would have you believe that the latter two are the only aspects of our culture worth paying attention to.

The latest furore with regards to policing British Muslims has been over Boris Johnson’s comments about being opposed to banning veils in public, yet believing that it was “absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes” – begging the question: has the debate become more about the objectification of Muslim women rather than who these women are in terms of their identities, successes and aspirations?

If Boris wishes to criticise the way someone looks based on their personal choice, then can we not equally say it’s absolutely ridiculous that a high-profile politician should go around looking as though he never brushes his hair, or criticise the clothing choice of many other people in Britain? It seems that it is Muslim women who are targeted more than others in that respect.

Over the weekend, for example, I went on a trip with a group of women and a male passenger allowed us to board the train first. One of the women was wearing a niqab, and she was the last of us to get on the train. After spotting her, the man laughed and said: “Hold on, you forgot the letterbox.” If freedom of speech means accepting highly offensive behaviour towards people who have done nothing more than step onto a train for an enjoyable day out, we have a lot of self-reflection to do.

For years, Muslim women have been accused of not integrating into British society, but the sad fact is that many of them have faced huge challenges, much like the example above, in being accepted, even though they are keen to engage fully in British life. Fortunately, my fellow Conservative councillor colleagues have never been Islamophobic to me, but a number of people across party lines have spoken of issues with Islamophobia, which is worth noting.

In 2016, Boris Johnson backed the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, despite claiming that the decision to do so was “agonising”. There were claims that many people voted Leave because they were stirred up by real or imagined images about immigration. Alarmingly, in the week following the Brexit referendum, there was a 475 per cent increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes, particularly towards Muslim women wearing Islamic clothing.

But it is Boris’s controversial comments of late that have sparked a war within the Conservative Party, with four top ministers criticising the way in which the investigation has been handled, whereas Tory peer Lord Cooper accused Johnson of “moral emptiness” and “courting fascism”, in a squabble over what the government thinks is and isn’t morally acceptable.

Figures from Tell Mama, an organisation that records anti-Muslim incidents in the UK, suggest hate crimes against Muslim women escalated in the week since Boris’s comments, instilling fear into innocent, peace-loving, hardworking people in our communities. It’s another example of dismissing people’s humanity and diversity and inclusion for political gain, without realising the detrimental effect (mentally as well as physically) that it has upon those targeted.

In March 2013, it was a Conservative government that established Britain’s first Islamic Finance Task Force. In 2014, ministers launched a Sharia law-compliant version of the help to buy scheme to enable Muslim house buyers to take advantage of the incentive. In the same year, the United Kingdom became the first western European country to issue a sovereign sukuk bond with a five year dated £200m issuance.

It is a paradox, therefore, that a Conservative Party that takes such radical steps is the same party that is incapable of eradicating Islamophobia within its own ranks.

The debate around Islam, inequality and integration has changed with the context of time. Britain now faces radicalisation and extremism, and Isis and Muslim women struggle to carve their place in British society. Neither of the two main political parties seems capable of facing their own problems with Islamophobia and antisemitism, so how can Britain build on integration hopes in an era where Muslim women are still labelled as “submissive” and “letterboxes”?

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