INTELLIGENT references to burqas are as rare as the women in the UK who wear them. Most criticism of Muslim dress refers to the niqab, which covers most of the face, rather than the burqa, where the eyes, too, are concealed. The niqab is mostly worn by Arab women. You can post a letter in a burqa, but only if you happened to be wearing one to walk to the postbox. Boris Johnson, as a former Foreign Secretary, will know this full well, but “burqa” is the word that presses the buttons he wished to press in his Telegraph article. Had he intended to enter the legitimate debate about whether Muslim clothing liberates or oppresses women, he would have signalled this by using the right vocabulary.
This debate has been rehearsed many times, even in these pages. Seldom, however, is enough weight given to the context in which such a debate must take place: the general Western confusion over women’s clothing. Avoiding the more sexually loaded items, one need look only at the high-heeled shoe to find a parallel. Is the high-heeled shoe a thing of beauty, giving its wearer stature and elegance? Or an instrument of torture imposed on women by men? A useful pointer on the oppression index is the amount of take-up by men. Were stilettos a general good, we should see them on the feet of men, at least those of short stature. Similarly, since male Muslims aspire to the same degree of modesty as women, it is notable that there is not a more universal adoption of head and face covering. Muslim men favour fuller clothing that is not too closely fitting to the male form. But conservative Muslims must answer the question why it is only women who encouraged — and in some countries forced — to wear clothing that hinders social intercourse.
It is a mistake to dwell on the religious aspect of this matter. All religious costumes, from copes to habits, have cultural roots. Those governing Muslim dress are, perhaps, nearer the surface. The hijab, niqab, chador, and burqa gave women protection through anonymity in times and parts of the world where the rule of law was weak. In 21st-century Britain, the threat of physical violence is less — though that might be at risk from comments such as Mr Johnson’s. But the reasons for the retention of the different forms of Muslim dress are, therefore, subtler and more varied: association with a religious and cultural community; the conservatism of the wearer; the conservatism of the wearer’s partner or family; as a symbol of faithfulness to a new husband; and as an escape from sexualised Western culture. It is not Islamophobic to remark that social interaction is hindered by the more extreme forms of covering. Intervention, however, would be justified only when it was clear that someone was prevented from exercising this right. To judge when this might be the case requires more engagement, more understanding, fewer threats, and no jokes.
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