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As a Muslim woman, this is what I want you to know about the burqa debate

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Mariam Khan
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It’s not really about the burqa, says Mariam Khan.     

Ever since Boris Johnson’s boorish comments last week, the entire conversation around Muslim women and burqas has spiralled. I’ve watched men and women offer their expertise and opinions on the matter - almost all of them white. The implication is that their opinions or feelings should be centred and matter more than those whose identity or dress is being discussed.

Scrolling through social media, I stumbled across a tweet from Allison Pearson, a Telegraph columnist, which read: “How are we supposed to express our unease? If six European countries can ban the burka for reasons of equality and social cohesion, then so should we. But we’re not allowed to have that debate because of ‘cultural sensitivity’.”

Doesn’t a debate mean some sort of meaningful discussion? Instead, we are served with a euro-Western-centric conversation, in which white men and women mostly share their discomfort about somebody else’s choice, but still expect to live their life without having any of their rights infringed upon or their own choices questioned. One rule for us and another for them.

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This so-called debate currently taking place around Muslim woman and the burqa isn’t one in the slightest. It’s a ploy disguising Islamophobic views as insincere concern for Muslim women. Indeed, the current conversation throws doubt over a Muslim woman’s agency, specifically her ability to make choices for herself in how she chooses to dress her own body. The body that, ultimately, she has to care for. This rhetoric strips away the autonomy of choice for Muslim women and suddenly allows everyone but them to collectively discuss their bodies, clothes, lives and freedoms because the word woman is preceded with “Muslim”. 

According to Johnson, Muslim women who wear the burqa look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. I wonder, would it be acceptable if I suddenly decided I wasn’t comfortable with white women wearing heels or short skirts and described them in a way equal to the Islamophobic comments made by Johnson about Muslim women? If women wear burqas, they are oppressed. If they wear skirts, they are sluts. I am tired of this binary.

Johnson’s remarks are not only Islamophobic and disrespectful, they also dehumanise Muslim women. He sees Muslim women as objects. To call this degrading would be an understatement. He knowingly legitimised, using his position and influence, a narrative that many from the far right will now use to physically and verbally abuse Muslim women on the streets of Britain. Only a few days ago a young Muslim mother was told to remove her face veil by a bus driver, who insinuated she could bomb the bus.

Last week, I was very briefly on The JVS Show on BBC Three Counties Radio, the presenter told me: “Many of my listeners are contacting the program and saying he (Johnson) hasn’t done anything wrong because it’s true, women wearing the burqa, women wearing the niqab look like bank robbers and look like letter boxes.” 

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Later, I wondered how much these listeners knew about or cared about the burqa before Johnson decided to make a woman’s choice into a national scandal, yet again to score some political points and throw the media into frenzy. The show ended up discussing not why Johnson should be reprimanded, but if the burqa was acceptable in British society at all. 

How many listeners cared about Muslim women being forced to do anything or going through Islamophobic abuse each day when it wasn’t being highlighted in the national media? And yet, these same listeners, most speaking so surely about Muslim women, would never expect themselves to be equated with colonisers regardless of how they look.

I wish everyone understood that not every Muslim woman who wears the burqa wants to debate or justify her choice. It is exactly that: an individual choice. We live in a society that allows for autonomy. So, when the words “forced to wear” appear in relation to the burqa or hijab, and are contrasted with “burqa ban”, I find myself wondering how the people suggesting this aren’t able to understand their own hypocrisy. 

A ban means the restriction of freedom – exactly what these people are rallying against. The “burqa ban” is perceived and suggested by many over and over as some sort of liberating solution for Muslim women. But no white man or woman is ever going to want my liberation as a Muslim woman more than I do. They can’t give me liberation because I must take that for myself. I must be the owner of what frees me and not the product of somebody else’s conditioned liberation for me.

I’ve often thought about what a productive conversation about the burqa would look like, and it doesn’t include banning anything. It includes educating women in communities that they have a choice. That the burqa is allowed but they should only wear it if they want to. That the burqa isn’t Islamically mandated clothing. 

However, nobody is looking to progress or have a constructive conversation because… well, because all of this uproar is not about the burqa. Every time a Muslim woman and her body are discussed, we are used to political point score, improve white men’s bids for leadership or appeal to the far right. All of these conversations are hollow. They lack sincerity, lack real want for any sort of progress or well-being of those being discussed.

And, most of the time, they lack the voice of actual Muslim women. 

Mariam Khan is the editor of IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BURQA, an anthology of essays by Muslim women forthcoming in 2019 from Picador.

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