It is none of Boris Johnson’s business what any woman wears

This is not about the burqa, but about the vilification of Muslims for political gain, writes Shelina Janmohamed

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 07, 2018 Britain's then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives in Downing Street in London.
Britain's Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis said on August 7, 2018 he had asked former foreign secretary Boris Johnson to apologise for disparaging comments he made about Muslim women wearing burqas. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS
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Never before has such a small piece of cloth, which affects so few people – especially in the UK – created so much heated national discussion. Yes, it’s that old chestnut that gets recycled when a politician wants to create controversy and grab the limelight: what Muslim women wear.

This time it’s the UK’s ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, infamous for his endless array of gaffes which include racial slurs, from "picaninnies" to "watermelon smiles". He’s the guy who joked about "dead bodies" getting in the way of businesses investing in Libya after it’s civil war.

His public remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe led to an extension of her jail term in Iran; quite a feat for a foreign secretary tasked with getting her safely back to the UK. And he has in the past described Africa as a country, rather than a continent.

This week, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Johnson described the burqa as "weird" and "ridiculous" and likened women wearing them to letter boxes or bank robbers.

But none of this should really be about Mr Johnson, no matter how much he would like it to be. After all, he claims he’s smart and therefore the correct conclusion is that this is calculated as part of his UK leadership bid. It is a desperate attempt to score political points from his base by throwing Muslim women under the bus.

He had time to choose his words. And his editors approved and published them. So the point is less about him, and more about why this topic whips up such emotion. The ultimate outcome is to dehumanise Muslim women and turn them into objects of mockery, hatred and abuse.

Mr Johnson has knowingly lit a match and thrown it into a tinderbox. And those who excuse it as "colourful language", "expressing his opinion" and "saying what people think" show a disregard for the very real life consequences of division, hatred and death.

Making fun of people from a position of privilege is no gaffe.

The real questions are who and what have led us to this volatile status where it’s not just okay, but laudable to mock people, knowing that it leads to measurable discrimination, aggression and physical assault, including fatal attacks.

The damage is done. An apology from Mr Johnson will be seen as pandering to Muslims. And without one, dehumanising people into objects and laughing at them will be further legitimised.


Read more from Shelina Janmohamed:

Dear Sondos Al Qattan: Please don't hide behind your hijab

Make your selfies the souvenir, not the experience, at this year's Hajj

This week a group of online trolls tried to drive me from public life. I won't let them win


I’ve spent more than a decade writing about the “controversies” over hijabs, niqabs and burqas and the right of Muslim women to make their own choices. There’s only one thing that has changed in that time: an increase in hatred and violence against Muslim women.

There’s no point even unpacking the arguments about the merits and disadvantages of covering. I’ve given up on nuanced debate, because no-one actually cares about the pros and cons, or the voices and opinions of Muslim women.

I know this because of the glaring paradoxes. Women who wear burqas are described as oppressed. But women who wear burqas are also mocked for looking like letterboxes and bank robbers. If you claim these women are victims (which I don’t believe they are) why are they being mocked? It is bullying, underpinned by abuse of privilege.

Are these women forced, or are they offensive? If you argue that they are both, you cannot present yourself as their saviour. Those who are oppressed are never offensive, but such bigoted views certainly are.

So, should women be "allowed" to cover? Here we are in 2018 and we are still infantilising women, talking about them like children waiting to be saved by male saviours demanding to see their faces. Public access to women’s bodies is not a right, it’s by granted consent. Or did everyone miss the memo about the feminist movement and more recently #MeToo?

Personally, I don’t cover my face, but I do own my own body and have ownership over who has access to it. And I will defend every other woman’s access to her own body. And so should you.

Let’s be clear. Mr Johnson is selling out Muslim women for political gain. It happens time and again and naturally those who say it’s harmless opinion, or that people are wrong to be offended, are not the ones paying the price. It’s Muslim women who are being assaulted and abused.

None of this is about burqas or niqabs. It’s just shorthand for Muslims. Which is shorthand for people who it’s acceptable to vilify and against whom abuse is tolerated and even lauded. And yet again, it’s Muslim women paying the price.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World