“Being intolerant of
I was intolerant…”
From Hey Bhagwan,
What About Hindustan
Boris Johnson, sometime mayor of London, now MP for Uxbridge and recently UK’s foreign minister, has courted the sort of controversy that the late great V.S. Naipaul would have revelled in. (Pardon me, gentle reader, my thoughts this week after VS’ death keep pestering me with references, though this one is pretty precise.)
Vidia, being asked once what the bindi on the forehead of women signified, said that it meant there was nothing inside their skulls. Now Boris has said that women who wear burqas look to him like letterboxes or bank robbers — presumably those wearing balaclavas.
His column in a national UK newspaper has caused a bit of a flutter. The Prime Minister of the UK is not normally interested in criticising or contradicting the comments of journalists, but Prime Minister Theresa May pointedly and publicly said that Mr Johnson had gratuitously offended a section of the population. Several other Tory ministers and party grandees voiced their objections to Mr Johnson’s insulting frivolity.
What could be characterised, absorbed and dismissed as prankish provocation of an idiosyncratic satirist, was not in Mr Johnson’s case. For two very pressing reasons. The first being that the country is absorbed in an examination and ensuing divisions about insults and phobias involving sections thing of the populations, notably minorities.
No, no, nothing as severe as in Holy Bharat’s recent treatment of minorities. No lynchings of Muslims or Jews have taken place for eating or not eating this or that. The battlelines are drawn on the Kurukshetra of verbiage — who said what to whom and who by their actions or words is explicitly or implicitly anti-Semitic or Islamophobic.
The Labour Party, in Opposition today, is deeply divided over the issue of anti-Semitism. There are stories in the papers of plots by gangs of Labour MPs to work out strategies to replace Jeremy Corbyn as their leader as he is supposed to side with the anti-Semites in his party and lay wreaths at the graves of anti-Israeli terrorists. The plotters, with evidence on their side, believe the trend will destroy their party.
Mr Johnson’s remarks are mild stimulants in the Islamophobic debate. He is known as a foot-in-mouth speaker, but this isn’t that. It’s a tactical calculation to win the support of the aam-white-British junta for his bid to replace Ms May as Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson resigned from her Cabinet over her overcautious Brexit policy. It’s an approach which Mr Johnson and a faction of the Tory party contend is remaining within the European Union in all but name. His strategy is to build popular support with rhetorical appeal to “taking back control” and some phantom economic contention that Britain can lose its preferential trade within Europe and get capital and fantastic trading deals with the US, China and India. No doubt Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and Indian capitalists have all vowed to make Britain great again. Mr Johnson’s faction of Brexiteers in the Tory party, divided amongst themselves, also believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Crossed fingers and chicanery.
And so burqas and jokes about them, have become a pawn in the great game of “Politopoly” in parts of Europe and now, not on the playing fields of Hindutva, but in of all places, Westminster, UK.
I grew up with burqas, by which I mean I saw them in the streets. They were what some Muslim women wore. My mother wore a sari in some modern style. My grandmother wore one in more traditional Parsi style. Our Maratha housekeeper Chandrabai had saris of discernibly different materials and wore hers in a particular wrap.
Apart from subconsciously observing the different ways of dressing and assertions of identity in India, none of it concerned me. I don’t know to this day how a sari is put on.
My grandfather, Khan Bahadur A.H. Antia, in whose house I lived during school and college term-times till my late teens, was an expert on Indian land records. He had retired from the service and spent his days cataloguing his rare postage stamps in leather-covered albums.
A young lady called Amtullabai, in full and flowing burqa, approached him for advice on her land dispute. She would come to the house and they would spend hours in discussion with her burqa discarded and her face and modestly clothed body in full view. My aunts, Nanaji’s daughters, frivolously labelled her his “girlfriend”. No one questioned her right to wear what she or her sect considered appropriate.
In the wake of Mr Johnson’s remarks, Muslim scholars have written about the burqa not being essential to anything specified in the Quran or the Hadith. Dr Taj Hargey of the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford has described the burqa as “an archaic tribal piece of cloth that is eagerly used by fundamentalist zealots to promote a toxic brand of extremist non-Quranic theology…” Outspoken stuff.
Despite his “jokes” Mr Johnson hasn’t, though Dr Hargey has, called for a legal ban on the burqa. Denmark has followed France, Austria, Quebec and even Morocco in banning the whole-face cover. Mr Johnson characterises these bans as illiberal and is outspokenly for allowing women to cover their faces if they choose, as long as it’s not when facial features are required scrutiny — as in police enquiries, evidence in court, teaching children, smuggling drugs, etc.
Mr Johnson’s sister Rachel Johnson, a columnist, and his father, a sometime politician, have both registered their dissent from him by calling for a national ban on the burqa.
Boris Johnson’s calculation is the have-your-kebab-and-eat-it one. His stance will be seen as both liberal by the likes of myself and, by the likes of the bigots of Brexit, as a welcome kick by their potential PM in the teeth of Islamic communities.
Little did I think in my childhood that the slitted hood with which Amtullabai covered her head on the streets would become an instrument in the tussle for leadership of the former imperial power.