Wednesday, Sep 26, 2018 | Last Update : 10:34 AM IST

To ban or not: Troubling questions on the burqa

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi
Published : Aug 31, 2018, 1:23 am IST
Updated : Aug 31, 2018, 1:23 am IST

Women on the Haj pilgrimage do not have to cover their faces in front of the Kaaba, the building at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Muslims in Britain  who are causing  raised eyebrows by  an obstinate insistence on a wardrobe which the host population finds outlandish and worse, must realise that they are at risk  of bartering away priceless goodwill. (Photo: Representational Image)
 Muslims in Britain who are causing raised eyebrows by an obstinate insistence on a wardrobe which the host population finds outlandish and worse, must realise that they are at risk of bartering away priceless goodwill. (Photo: Representational Image)

Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, during a visit to Denmark, extracted orgasmic joy from watching the Danes dive stark naked into the bracing waters of the harbour. “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen”, he writes ecstatically in London’s Telegraph. He then contrasts “Viking individualism” to the “oppressive and ridiculous burqa”, the abomination which makes Muslim women look like mobile “post-boxes” and “bank robbers”.

Not only is the sight of the burqa clad aesthetically unappetising, he lists a host of reasons why the burqa is inconvenient — doing surgery for instance. Mr Johnson is on the same page as the Danes thus far. Thereafter, he pulls back. He is opposed to the decision the Danes took on August 1 to ban the burqa as France, Germany, Austria and Belgium have done.

For his opposition to banning the practice, he gives a most unconvincing explanation: “I am against a total ban because it is inevitably construed — rightly or wrongly — as being intended to make some point about Islam.”

It has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with the mullah who cites toxic texts outside the Quran to keep the congregation in his thrall. Should the congregation acquire some sense, it would troop out on the mullah. It should be instantly clarified that there is a vast difference between the mullah, the keeper of the mosque, and the “aalim”, or the scholar of theology.

Mr Johnson’s intervention is, in any event, primarily to boost his chances on an anti-immigrant platform for the next job. But support for his point of view has come from an unexpected direction — the Imam of Oxford, Taj Hargey. In a letter to the Times, the imam opposed the Conservative Party seeking an explanation from Mr Johnson. That would be “political assassination”, he said. The imam would like both to be banned — the burqa, which covers the face, including the eyes, and the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered.

After all, women on the Haj pilgrimage do not have to cover their faces in front of the Kaaba, the building at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, he says. Then comes the imam’s punch line: “God is everywhere — if a woman is not banned from showing her face there (Kaaba), why wear a burqa in the streets of London or Oxford, where it offends people?”

He says he “has no issues with people covering their faces if they’re saying it’s a personal thing... But to them I shall say ‘Listen, if you are living in this society and you feel you must cover your face, then I will say very respectfully to you — I will do a crowdfunding for you and send you on a one-way ticket to Wahhabi land, Sharia land, burqa land, niqab land, wherever you wish, because you are clearly not happy here’.”

Personally, this columnist would want to avoid being judgmental about a community which has been under immense pressure because of rampaging Islamophobia since the 1990s. And yet, I cannot help asking — is the burqa a response to Islamophobia or a means of aggravating it?

Aggravation of the problem is surely not our purpose. Then whose purpose is served by Muslim women floating around Oxford Circus in gear which distances them, in geometrical progression, from the host population? The clerics, eager to consolidate their congregations? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these congregations had in their midst scholars, doctors, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, rather than pliant women fitting Boris Johnson’s description?

I am troubled for another reason. After extensive travel around the world, I am inclined to cast my vote in recent years for Britain as a society where human rights, the rule of law and race relations are most secure. That is why I am uneasy. By looking like walking tents these burqa-clad women are unnecessarily annoying a society which has otherwise been hospitable to all minorities, particularly Muslims.

The practice of Islam did not come in the way of Sadiq Khan serving as London’s high-profile mayor. Last year Donald Trump banned travel to the United States from several Muslim countries. He was therefore not accorded a “state” visit to Britain, because in that event protocol would have involved the mayor of London. Saving Sadiq Khan this embarrassment was important enough for the organisers to deny President Trump a state banquet with Queen Elizabeth II.

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, may not be a prasticing Muslim but he is there high in public profile to make a bid for the top job.

Remember, Norman Tebbit, the Conservative Party leader, who once proposed unambiguous support for the English teams in sporting events as the acid test for the immigrant community’s loyalty to the host country? Well, he has mellowed beyond measure with experience. He told an interviewer that Sajid Javid would be his favourite candidate for the prime ministership.

Tebbit may be totally unrealistic in identifying the winner but Muslims in Britain who are causing raised eyebrows by an obstinate insistence on a wardrobe which the host population finds outlandish and worse, must realise that they are at risk of bartering away priceless goodwill.

Two years ago when I watched a Test match in London, there were four Muslims in the English cricket team. I have met doctors, teachers, civil servants, entrepreneurs from the subcontinent, both Hindus and Muslims, who are thriving in the UK. I have grown up in a devout Muslim family. Never in generations have ladies worn the burqa. In fact, a host of my grandmother’s sisters and cousins had most willingly adopted the sari, the elegant Hindu outfit, as their regular wear.

Yes, one point I need to analyse later — younger Muslim women in the diaspora come under a different kind of peer pressure when they seek out Muslims for company. There is a tendency towards a ghettoised choice of clothing. They had better watch out. They are not being liked in their fancy dress by the host societies.

Tags: burqa ban, boris johnson, burqa