The hypocrisies of Boris Johnson’s argument; that the Niqab (aka the ‘face veil’) goes against British principles of ‘liberty’, suggest the need for another look at why Britain wants to ‘Ban the Burqa’. By Lauren Moore.

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Boris Johnson has recently spoken out against a school uniform which includes a Niqab ,” It Is against my principles and it’s against the principles of liberty that London should stand for”. I personally find it hard to believe this is a remark on the strictness or sexism of the school’s uniform policy, as he claims. This is because the blazer, compulsory skirt (yes, compulsory skirt) and, as my mother used to call them, the ‘nightmare to iron’ shirts are still part and parcel of my Catholic secondary school’s incredibly strict and sexist uniform policy. And David Cameron’s recent claim that he is backing the rights of institutions, such as schools and courts, to enforce dress codes which exclude the Niqab (supposedly he didn’t mean the rights of Muslim schools to enforce their dress codes) does not reflect these institutions’ inability to incorporate the Niqab as reasonable adjustments* can be made. These hypocrisies and flaws in the Niqab debate, for me, reflect the desperation of certain corners of society to find fault with the Niqab. A need which is caused by a dominant ideology of how women should dress in Britain.

The irony is screamingly evident; if the Niqab is against British “principles of liberty” then how does banning what a person can wear reinforce those “principles of liberty”? It doesn’t! Either we are a free society or we aren’t. If we ban the Niqab, then we automatically lose one of our liberties; liberties that, according to Johnson, are what Britain stands for.

If you step back, these calls from the Prime Minister and The Mayor of London are just Western society telling Muslim women what to wear. The ultimate example of this is France’s complete ban on wearing the Niqab in public in April 2011, which has resulted in harassment* and fines* for Muslim women who do not conform. If we hear the words ‘a nation-wide ban on something a woman can wear’, do we instantly think of a secular, free and democratic society such as France or Britain? Probably not.

Unfortunately Western society is in fact obsessed with what women do and don’t wear, and the recent Burqa and Niqab debates are testament to this. Women’s fashion is often the most easily recognisable sign of the times. Show me a picture of a woman in a tight woolen jumper and a poodle skirt,  I’ll say “1950’s!”. Show me a picture of a woman in an oversized shoulder-padded suit with short, boyish hair and one earring, I’ll say “1980’s!”. Show me a man in a suit and a tie and I’ll say “Um, sometime in the last century?”. Great Euro-American eras are encapsulated in women’s fashion, and with one glance at a woman in a mini-skirt an entire decade’s worth of imagery and historical knowledge flood in: the Civil Rights Movement, Kennedy, The Beatles, the Vietnam War, the ‘peace’ symbol, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Woodstock, etc, etc.

I would go so far as to say that the way women dress is one of the bed-rocks of defining a society, culture or era. And this is, at least in part, the reason that the Burqa and Niqab have received so much attention. If the Burqa and Niqab in Britain define these multicultural times, it is no wonder that it is these particular symbols that come under most heat from the anti-immigration Right. ‘We want our women in Jeans and a T-shirt!’, they may as well shout. ‘We want these women to reflect our society, our culture, our religion or lack thereof!’.

One poignant example of the British backlash to how Muslim women dress was rather horrifyingly illustrated in a scene from Channel 4’s Make Bradford British. Sabbiyah, a Muslim woman, was the target of a tirade of abuse from a pub dweller and told in no uncertain terms that she must don a “mini-skirt” and a “low-cut top” to fit into British Society, before he proceeded to sexually harass* her. The onslaught left her in tears.

Western Society, it seems, will find any way to get Muslim women out of ‘those silly face covering things’ if they fundamentally don’t reflect the dominant culture. Law, policy, harassment and fines are all symptoms of some women not reflecting the Western cultural norms that women usually do.

The anti-immigration Right, and even the Western feminists who call for ‘liberation from the Burqa’ are missing the point entirely. Telling a woman what not to wear is just as oppressive, patriarchal and an infringement of a woman’s rights as telling her she absolutely has to wear a Niqab. A woman’s right to wear a Burqa and Niqab should be the bedrock of this glorious, free,  21st Century, democratic society. Our focus should be on incorporating the rights of Muslim women into our institutions, not trying to mould them into an ‘ideal’ reflection of Western culture. Unfortunately, however, this will not be achievable while people believe that Muslim women’s bodies can be used as an advert for ideals of British society.

reasonable adjustments * http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/16/muslim-woman-niqab-judge-ruling

harassment * http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/21/dont-ban-veil-in-uk

fines* http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/19/battle-for-the-burqa

sexually harass * http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9114313/Make-Bradford-British-Channel-4-preview.html

“It is against my principles and it’s against the principles of liberty that London should stand for” “principles of liberty” “mini-skirt” “low-cut top”