Boris Johnson’s attack on the burqa has left some liberals with a problem.
They feel they must condemn his blatant Islamophobia. But because they are soft Islamophobes, they don’t want to come out clearly in defence of Muslim women.
There are some who accept Islamophobic arguments about the burqa.
Take Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who wrote last week, “What could be more dehumanising than the niqab and the burqa? Hiding a woman dehumanises her completely, turning a person into an anonymous thing.”
In the past Labour’s Emily Thornberry has said she wouldn’t want her child or elderly mother “looked after by somebody wearing a burqa”.
Johnson, Toynbee and Thornberry do not call for the burqa to be banned. But they all treat it as a problem —and by doing so imply that Islam is a particularly sexist and backward religion.
People should have the right to criticise religion. But at a time when Muslim women are under specific attack from the state, to criticise the burqa is to line up with the racists.
And when supposed progressives criticise the burqa, it gives more credibility to the more overt Islamophobes.
Some liberals see the burqa as a reflection of sexist ideas.
They assume that women are pushed to cover themselves because female flesh has been deemed dirty or too exciting to men.
Of course there will be some Muslims who think this. But the idea is hardly Islamic—it’s deeply rooted in Western capitalist societies.
Think of rape trials where women are told they were “asking for it” because of what they wore. Or the Canadian cop who said that women should “avoid dressing like sluts” to escape sexual assault.
Many liberals, and right wingers, claim they want to “liberate” oppressed Muslim women who they assume have been forced to cover up.
We should oppose women being forced to wear coverings. And we should stand with the women in Iran who have defied the state and removed their hijabs in public, imprisoned as a result.
But it isn’t true that Islam forces women to cover themselves. Like other religions, Islam suggests that men and women dress “modestly”. What this means is open to interpretation, which is why different Muslim women choose to wear different coverings, or none at all.
Women often say they choose to wear coverings to feel closer to Allah. It’s patronising to assume that every women who wears a hijab, niqab or burka has been told to do so by a man.
This also treats the main source of oppression facing Muslim women as Muslim men. In fact, the main oppressor of Muslim women is the state.
For all the exhortations for Muslim women to integrate, Western governments have made it harder for them to do so. France, Denmark, Austria and Belgium are among the countries that have banned the hijab in public. This pushes Muslims away from wider society and tells them that they have no place in it.
In Britain, cuts to Esol language classes leave vulnerable women more isolated. And Islamophobic comments such as Johnson’s treat Islam as a problem and encourages racist violence.
Western politicians shake their heads at what they assume to be sexism in Islam while presiding over deeply sexist societies and encouraging sexist ideas.
In Britain, like other capitalist societies, all women’s bodies are up for public debate. We are policed on how we look and what we wear.
Socialists should defend a woman’s right to choose what she wears. That includes the right to wear a burqa—and the right not to wear one.
Forcing Muslim women to give up wearing veils, headscarves or burqas isn’t liberating, just as encouraging women to wear skimpy clothes isn’t. Instead it’s just another form of judging women on their appearance and dress, and taking control and choice away from them.