What is wrong with wearing a burqa?

Boris Johnson has once again got into hot water, and once again his comments have provoked furious reactions on both sides—agreeing and disagreeing with him—but I wonder how may actual read what Johnson said? It is worth reading (and worth the trouble of registering on the site) if only to know what it is that people are debating. The central line of his reasoning is that it seems to him paradoxical that in a country like Denmark, which appears to pride itself on a radical understanding of freedom that protects things we in the UK would find distinctly odd, the burqa is banned when that would be unthinkable here.

But of course Johnson hasn’t simply offered an argument; he has offered an argument using his swashbuckling and confident style of writing, which makes it very interesting to read but also makes it easily offensive. The offending phrase came in the description of the perception of those wearing burqas in the UK:

If you tell me that the burka is oppressive, then I am with you. If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree – and I would add that I can find no scriptural authority for the practice in the Koran. I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes; and I thoroughly dislike any attempt by any – invariably male – government to encourage such demonstrations of “modesty”, notably the extraordinary exhortations of President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who has told the men of his country to splat their women with paintballs if they fail to cover their heads.

Here Johnson sandwiches a flippant insult in between two or three pretty serious points, and this is where the main problem lies. Rowan Atkinson came to his defence, on the grounds that all views, including the religious, should be open to mocking in a free society:

As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one. All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required.

I think Atkinson is quite mistaken here, not least because I think his parodies of Christian belief have been quite offensive even when they have been entertaining. And what both he and Johnson ignore is the impact that these flippant remarks by powerful men actually have on the women concerned. As my friend Anna Alls commented online:

I’m conflicted on this issue, yes I’m all for robust conversation and debate, I think jokes about Christians are funny and Frankie Boyle makes me howl in fits of inappropriate laughter. However I think there’s something deeply disturbing about a straight, white, educated, male making derogatory statements about Muslim women because they’re a minority group facing persecution. My head scarf wearing friends avoid public transport, get verbally abused while shopping regularly, I think the establishment figure of a politician should be looking for ways to make GB a safer place for headscarf wearing women than looking for ways to further incite mischief against them. This is a question of power to me and the fact that we have another ‘powerful’ person telling us we all need to chill out a bit actually makes me uncomfortable, he’s already the winner in this situation.

And several government ministers protested that Johnson’s comments made Muslim women feel threatened.


Apart from the direct impact that both Johnson’s comments and the debate about them have on groups of people within British society, there are three distinct aspects to the underlying issue at stake here: the religious, the cultural, and the personal.

On the religious, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, claimed that the row about wearing the burqa was similar to controversies about Christians wearing crucifixes. But, as Adrian Hilton pointed out, all this did was highlight Davidson’s ignorance.

A burqa is worn by Muslim women, not men, because throughout the patriarchal Islamic world women are invariably viewed and treated as inferior to men. A crucifix is worn by both Christian women and men, because in Christ there is neither male nor female. The burqa is a symbol of oppression and misogyny; the crucifix a symbol of liberty and equality. The burqa dehumanises, covers the face and conceals identity; the crucifix personalises, looks at God face-to-face and reveals true identity. The burqa has no quranic legitimacy; the crucifix is the nexus of biblical authority. The burqa symbolises Islamic extremism, militancy and divine separation from society; the crucifix symbolises passion, devotion and God’s participation in humanity. The burqa divides Muslims because it segregates and aggravates; the crucifix unites Christians because it saves and sanctifies.

This leads to the second issue: that the burqa is not so much a religious symbol but an expression of a particular culture, a subset of the culture of Islamic countries. Its use does have some basis in the Qur’an:

“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah 33 verse 59)

“And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their scarves (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you the faithful, in order that you are successful”. (Surah 34 verse 31)

An obvious response to these verses is to note that the responsibility for sexual temptation is apportion to women as the temptresses, rather than men as the tempted. But the interpretation that this requires the wearing of the burqa is based on the idea that a woman’s face is the most attractive part of her of all, and therefore modesty requires covering the face as well as everything else—thus leading to a fairly complete social segregation between men and women in public. This interpretation belongs to the Salafist branch of Sunni Islam, which is closely related to Wahhabism, both of which are seen as literalist, fundamentalist and puritanical, and in both of which ‘jihad’ is understood to include violent attacks on non-Muslims. It is therefore no wonder that many of the countries that have banned the burqa have done so in response to the threat of jihadist Muslim violence. This connection makes Johnson’s flippant comment that women in burqas ‘look like bank robbers’ highly inappropriate.


The third issue is one that Johnson has come slightly closer to getting right.

As for individual businesses or branches of government – they should of course be able to enforce a dress code that enables their employees to interact with customers; and that means human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.

In Western culture, we are used to see people’s faces, and facial expression is a vital part of communication and interaction. In our culture, because those who cover their faces typically only do so because they offer some sort of threat, or are in a situation of conflict and need to remain anonymous, then we naturally feel threatened, and the other seems depersonalised. But in this regard, our culture is surely in line with basic realities of human life. Recognising facial expressions, and learning what they mean and imitating them, is the most primary form of development in infants. And those who are not able to recognise facial expressions and interpret them appropriately struggle through life.

And this is where the British conversation about ‘acceptance’, ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ runs into deep trouble. All cultural and religious traditions actually express, in an embedded way, values about what it means to be human. If you think it is humanising to be ‘inclusive’, but your ‘inclusion’ has no actual content, should you be ‘inclusive’ of things which are dehumanising? Even more basically, what does it mean to have a national identity, and what does it mean to be hospitable to other identities? I must confess to being rather baffled by aspect of the current BBC British Asian culture season. One of the trailers asked ‘Is British culture flexible enough to embrace Asian culture?’ and the obvious answer is ‘no’. If to be British means also to be Asian, African, American and every other culture in the world, then it doesn’t actually mean anything. The question should be ‘Is British culture hospitable enough to welcome and accommodate other cultures?’ and the question then arises: how do liberal values of what it means to be human relate to cultures (like that of Salafi Islam) which appear to dehumanise one part of their own society?

The ideas of welcome and inclusion need to have actual content. In Denmark they appear to understand what that means, so that some aspects of other cultures are welcomed in the country, but others are not. In Britain (perhaps because of our imperial past and our lingering guilt about that?) we appear incapable of making the same judgements. As long as we remain incapable, we will have these irresolvable arguments about Johnson’s comments—and those caught in the middle will continue to suffer.


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34 thoughts on “What is wrong with wearing a burqa?

  1. Super article Ian – thank you.

    One question I have is where you explain the cultural heritage of full face coverings coming from a jihadist/wahhabist belief system and then say “This connection makes Johnson’s flippant comment that women in burqas ‘look like bank robbers’ highly inappropriate.”

    Surely, if the heritage of the burqa and niqab are from violent approving, infidel punishing culture then Johnson’s comments likening these face coverings to someone (eg, a bank robber) who has threat and ill will in their heart is MORE relevant and appropriate, not less?

  2. Good discussion of the issues.

    I was uncomfortable with the reference to ‘straight, white, educated, male’ which I think is itself evidence of prejudice against someone because of their sexuality/race/background/sex and is routinely these days used to attempt to silence people of that description and imply that their views are unwelcome and invalid.

    I dislike the idea of wrapping things in cotton wool because they are classified as belonging to a group that is ‘oppressed’ and therefore above criticism, or humour. Islam must be a suitable subject for ridicule, including in its treatment of women (or indeed their treatment of themselves). It must not become a specially protected ‘oppressed’ interest guarded from all criticism or send-up.

    I did wince a little at the bank robber comparison, though it is true that the burqa/niqab is used at times to assist in criminality. I note though (like many others) that Johnson is far from the first to make these kinds of unflattering comments and comparisons, but they have usually come from the Left. Is it a coincidence that this is the first time anyone has made a fuss about it? Anti-conservative/Brexit/Boris bias perhaps? That’s certainly Cranmer’s (Hilton’s) view this morning.

    I liked your comment: ‘One of the trailers asked ‘Is British culture flexible enough to embrace Asian culture?’ and the obvious answer is ‘no’. If to be British means also to be Asian, African, American and every other culture in the world, then it doesn’t actually mean anything.’ You say: ‘The question should be ‘Is British culture hospitable enough to welcome other cultures?’’ but I think possibly it should be: ‘Is British culture hospitable enough to accommodate other cultures?’

    You ask a good question about liberal compatibility. A further question is about whether accommodation is best achieved through integration (e.g. cuisine becoming part of the British diet) – which is currently being criticised by some as ‘appropriation’ – or through permitting the development of enclaves of foreign cultures (the multicultural model). Further questions then arise about difficulties when enclaves of foreign cultures become large (eg whole neighbourhoods and even cities), and how foreign cultures should be reflected in a national culture without demolishing the national culture or fuelling resentment among those of indigenous culture. None of these questions are generally handled well, or even properly addressed, and are more often avoided for fear of committing/encouraging racism and stoking extremist groups.

    The current in vogue model seems to involve assigning different ethnic/cultural groups a certain proportion of ‘representation’ (seats, jobs, airtime etc) according to their numbers – a concept that the CofE seems to have bought in to – but no one seems to want to discuss whether this is a good (or ethical given that it inherently involves racial discrimination) model or what the long term implications are for culture and society.

  3. Thanks Ian, my view has been 1. That freedom of speech as a legal freedom should not be seen as the carte blanche moral freedom to cause offence. Outside of legal rights are ethical responsibilities which go with politeness and courtesy. 2. That the affect of the mockery could be harmful to women already experiencing oppression as well as racial abuse which this potentially increases. 3. That a man angling for the PM’s job and a former foreign secretary has a responsibility for how he speaks. 4. That the attempt to compare niqabs and Burqa’s with crosses is shallow and misses what both symbols represent as a result of RE lessons focusing on external comparative religion. 5. However, rereading the article again, I think Bori’s point may well be to challenge the assumption that this is a free dress code choice. The implication seems to be ” come on no-one seriously believes that women freely choose the Burka” this to emphasise the oppression point.

    • I believe many women do freely choose the burqa as they genuinely believe it brings them closer to God. It can also be a powerful public statement of their religious commitment and the vitality of their particular Islamic sect. More cynically, it helps them to feel superior to those around them and more pious. It also creates an asymmetry that works to their benefit, in that they can see our faces but we can’t see theirs.

      The idea that women never choose it I think reflects an idea of women as always weak and vulnerable victims, when the number running off to join IS or otherwise joining in acts of terror surely shows that (shock) women are also capable of being taken in by evil religious ideology and wholeheartedly believing in it and acting in accordance with it.

      The burqa should be opposed (socially if not legally) because of what it stands for regardless of whether women do or do not choose it. As you say, even if something is not legally banned because of freedom that doesn’t mean there aren’t wider principles that should apply.

      • Hi Will, Yes that’s true of course, and that’s the point made by a number. My point was more that a second reading of Johnson suggested that this was where he was angling rather than that he was necessarily right in that. I think that would still raise questions including the level of extent to which a choice is a free choice if it arises out of a dominant spcial/ religious environment. That applies wider than the Burqa and Islam too and I think has implications for choices people make in so called liberal cultures. I think the Bible gives a greater critique of how sin and idolatry means we can be both willing participants and bound slaves at the same time. The other question is about the relationship between some people who have the privilege to make choices choosing to wear the veil and the continuing reality of people having no choice in the matter. Again, a New Testament perspective enables us to think not just about what we are free to do but about how our choices affect others who may be more constrained.
        I agree that we can can continue to challenge. Archbishop Farmer’s contrast of the veil and the cross is one example. I think more of that type of subversive fulfilment is good. We want to talk about how it is only the Cross that can truly cover our shame, it is only the Cross that enables men and women to stand together before God.

        • Nb – I’ve trying so hard to avoid commenting on Boris’s own choice of clothes when he brought the cups of tea out, those shorts – should they be banned. More seriously, AS a Christian I want to say neither the Burqa nor our western clothing which is all about flaunting wealth, sexuality, power , muscle etc. Clothes say so much about our gods. Christian men and women should do all things to the glory of God including choosing what to wear.

          • Dave, that is a really interesting point. Puritan movements have often in the past insisted on plain dress as a defence against personal pride–and with the clothes industry causing so much environmental damage, perhaps its time to rediscover this.

            And I am afraid I cannot help thinking about Weird Al Yankovic’s Amish Paradise…

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOfZLb33uCg

  4. An off piste comment, but linked to Boris.
    In a recent “Unbelievable” debate historian Tom Holland and Tom Wright were talking about Paul. Tom Holland commented that he had over many years studied the Greek and Roman classical world but had recently been struck by how much our modern society and values align with the messages in Paul’s letters than they do with the Greek and Roman cultures. With Boris’ constant referencing back to the Greek and Roman times I would be very interested in any comments from the learned Psephizo contributors: Is Boris’ fundamental problem that he follows the Classics rather than the Bible?
    Apologies if this is too far off topic.

    • I would say it’s primarily an affectation for his media persona. Boris’ books are very good, articulate, and mention the classics more rarely.

      He has cultivated a careful image; the bumbling etonian posh-boy, and it serves him very well so he increasingly plays to it. Don’t let it deceive you though, he’s a very capable man and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

  5. Given that the column was a transparent ploy to boost “Boris’s” (it’s a stage name for a persona he created; friends and family call him Al) chances of winning the Conservative Party leadership, I see no reason to dignify his antics by using them as a springboard for a debate about veiling. Especially when Johnson’s been in contact with the dark lord of the alt-right, Steve Bannon.

    Best thing Al’s political opponents could’ve done is to deny him the oxygen of publicity and ignore the provocation. Of course, as he (and Bannon?) correctly anticipated, they walked right into it.

      • Sure, it’d be an ad hom if I’d used the calculated pratfalls of Al’s comedy character as an argument against his position; by contrast, I think that engaging with this furore at all’s a bad idea, since any worthwhile discussion about veiling will be drowned out by the circus of the Boris Clown Car’s procession towards Downing St.

        If Johnson wanted a serious discussion about the subject, he’d should’ve said, simply, that he disagrees with the underlying theology but supports the right of women to veil, a position that I and millions of others agree with. Serious discussion and “Boris” are, however, strangers to one another.

        • Thank you James, I was about to make precisely this point. Although Ian’s article was very thoughtful and interesting, I think it misses the point that Johnson’s throwaway remarks where made by way of deliberately throwing a ‘doggy treat’ to the extreme right. Of course, Johnson’s central point is a sensible one but as a shrewd political operator (despite his carefully constructed image) he was well aware that it was the flippant remarks which would gain him publicity. When someone who may one day get to be prime minister is now apparently being advised by Bannon, there are dark forces at work in our society that require our Christian concern.

  6. Largely I agree with James Byron; I think this entire ‘story’ is a deliberate stirring of the waters to both distract from the current complexities and tensions of government, and to promote Alexander (Boris) Johnson’s image in view of his leadership ambitions. My only disagreement with James is that I think the Bannon association is massively overplayed.

    On the specific issues of Burkhas I largely agree with Ian (and Will), but with a couple of caveats.

    First, I think Rowan Atkinson is right. I am a free speech absolutist, so while I might be offended by jokes aimed at my religion, that offense does not entitle me to a defence so-to-speak, unless it is a direct incitement to persecution, or a deliberate falsehood, which this isn’t. The comparison to bank robbers is perhaps in poor taste given the latent implications, but it was not especially bad in my opinion. Bank Robbers do indeed conceal their faces, and there have been incidents of Burkhas being used as disguises for criminal activity. He certainly shouldn’t be made to apologise, and I don’t think he has to.

    If Boris had said that Bishop’s Mitres looked like Tea Coseys, and that in full ceremonial dress the Archbishop looked like a reject from the Liberace collection, many Christians, including myself, would be offended on some level but I guarantee you there would be nothing like the rage and lobbying currently being aimed at Johnson.

    The desire of many to pathologise criticism as a ‘phobia’, should be rejected for the nonsense it is. Is it Islamophobic to make observations about Islam that it doesn’t like? Was it Islamophobic of Dawkins to say that church bells were much better than the ‘aggressive’ Islamic call to prayer?

    Second, I also find the greatest difficulty with the Burkha is the challenge to communicate with someone whose face is obscured, but I would say that this is such a serious impediment (non verbal communication being so integral to human social interaction) that to willingly hide that is actively ‘dehumanising’, and that is the word I would use to describe it.

    I would also add, as an aside, that Nigel Farage (who I dislike immensely) got it right when he made the comparison a few years ago to motorcycle helmets. In many public places the deliberate obscuring of ones face is illegal for security reasons, and I do not think exceptions should be made.

    • Is this the same as Mat Sheffield? 😉

      I agree with what you say. Though I suspect your free speech ‘absolutism’ might have one or two limitations in practice, depending on context.

      Incidentally I think Boris really is his middle name so I’m not sure why people are making a point of refusing to use his preferred form of address!

      • “Is this the same as Mat Sheffield? ?”

        Nope, totally different people 😉

        I’m sure that I will eventually run into a situation where I will break my absolutist principle, but that’s exactly what it is, a guiding principle. It is much easier to navigate the world if you set out with the expectation of no control over what people may or may not say to you, and to reciprocate in kind. Of course I self-censor, and there are a great many things I do not say, and will not say, but critically, it is not that I cannot say them. This is another debate really….

        I would normally call Boris such, I’m just making the point as I suspect James was (and a few other cynical commentators) that ‘Boris’ is as a much a character as his name, and referring to him as Alexander draws a distinction between the two.

        I wasn’t being pointed about it.

    • Bannon’s role could be overstated — I came to this brouhaha via the involvement of Palpatine’s lost son, so I may be overestimating his importance. Certainly true that the washed-up mogul likes to paint himself as consigliere to every populist movement going. But worrying thing is, the extent of his involvement here’s unknown: we do know that he’s been in contact with Johnson, and this is right out his playbook.

      I’m also a free speech absolutist (minus the usual excepetions such as incitement, defamation, threats etc), and don’t like the pathologizing of religious disagreements. I dislike edgelord behavior not only for the harm it does, but because it makes it harder to discuss these issues in good faith, as people here want to do.

      • “But worrying thing is, the extent of his involvement here’s unknown: we do know that he’s been in contact with Johnson, and this is right out his playbook.”

        Johnson is not the only one. Allegedly Bannon has approached Mogg and Gove too, although once again we don’t know details. I don’t suspect there’s much going on, but I agree it is concerning.

        Are accusing me of being an edgelord? I try quite hard not to be, though I must admit it is tempting. 😉

        • You, not at all. Nor anyone else here. 🙂

          If “Boris” doesn’t want the title, it’s a shame, ’cause intentionally or not, he’s a master of the art.

  7. A whole roar of argument between one lot of men wanting to dictate what “their” women should wear, and another lot hoping to demonstrate their superior power by telling “someone else’s” women they can’t.
    All in response to the “problem” of men who claim to be uncontrollably stimulated by the sight of exposed females (and Johnson’s record on personal morals is not a pretty one.)
    I think I’ve seen one, or maybe two women at most, in media expressing a view.

    • Hi Karen,
      I don’t think I’ve seen any views on this expressed by women in the media, either, so when I saw your comment here, I thought I would make a brief comment as a mother, grandmother, and retired teacher. Firstly, about the wearing of the burqa itself. On one occasion, when I was teaching on supply in an inner-city school, the first class I covered was a group of girls, all wearing burqas. I found this daunting, not on religious grounds, but because I liked to learn the names of pupils as quickly as possible, and found that very difficult because I couldn’t see the girls’ faces, so I couldn’t ‘put a name to a face’! They were hardworking, courteous girls and I had no problems with them as people.
      On the subject of the oppression of women, at a different school ( a girls’ school) I worked with a ‘westernised’ Muslim colleague who always took his year eleven pupils on a trip to London , because ‘ that will be the last taste of freedom they will have.’ He was appalled at the way the girls were expected to work long hours doing housework, and often help with the family business, and then stay up until about two in the morning studying because their parents expected them to achieve excellent exam results. Several of my pupils seemed to be tired much of the time, and, as a mother and grandmother, it really grieved me to hear about their struggles. As a Christian, I found it hard to think well of a belief system which resulted in young girls being treated so shabbily.
      I am not a theologian, so I have little to offer in this respect, but I have found Ian’s blog really interesting and thoughtful, and I am following the comments.
      As for Boris – the less I say about him, the better!

        • Thank you for the link, Will. I have misgivings about a complete ban, and possible ramifications of the enforcement of such a ban, but I think a ban would be appropriate in some contexts, for instance on passport photos, and in court – maybe a ban is already in place in these contexts?

      • Well the two women I mentioned (Christine Hamilton, and just one Muslim lady I regret I can’t now track back to name, I think she was in the Times and I won’t cross their paywall to read stuff like “Trials of Jonathan King should worry us all”) have now been joined by a third, Polly Toynbee – the only one of the three not to come out in support of Mr J, and not necessarily an ally Christians can rely on, given her other comments. Not a lot to set against the innumerable men jostling for space to tell British women what they should or shouldn’t wear.
        Like yourself, the Muslim lady has personal experience that puts her in a position to be listened to, and is right in deploring the tradition and the associated repression of women. A close runner-up among “people who deserve to be listened to on this” is our Bishop Nazir-Ali, and for the same reason. But most commenters are (a) male (b) non-or even anti-religious and (c) treating women as mere material to feed pre-determined lines to their established audience.
        This is not about helping Muslim women – whom Johnson seems happy to throw as red meat to any street thug for a cheap headline – but getting a certain white woman out of her job so he can make it his. And I don’t see women of any background being his first concern if he does.
        Thank you for your post, it was well worth the read.

          • I think it was, but again it’s paywalled. Thank you for the link so those already subscribed can see.

          • Hi Karen,
            Thank you for replying. I wish I could read the Spectator link from Will (and thank you for the link, Will). but I can’t, because it’s paywalled. It would strengthen the case for a burqa-ban if more high-profile Muslim people, especially Muslim women, would speak out about it. I am not convinced that all white men who want a ban have dubious motives, but Boris seems to be a law unto himself – and now I’ll bite my tongue re: Boris!!

          • Sadly what I think we will see, should a burqa ban be imposed, is not the sudden emergence into the light of hundreds of newly-freed Islamic women – but a huge space on the streets where they used to be, as they are either forbidden to leave the house or sent back to Islamic states to ensure their compliance. There may be or may not be helpful data from previously “banning” countries on this – the whole point being that the women were “invisible” in the first place, so who can tell which ones are or are not still there?
            So the question I find in my mind is – what is some commenters’ (not yours) true objective?
            To remove veils from the women, or visibly Islamic people from the streets?

          • Hi Karen

            The aim I think is to integrate Muslims with British culture as far as possible in order to promote social cohesion and civic unity, protect the rights of all, smooth social relations (e.g. by ensuring faces are visible for social discourse) and safeguard our values, culture and heritage for future generations.

  8. Hi Karen,
    Yes, a total ban on wearing the burqa in public would not remove the deep roots of the belief system in which the wearing of the burqa is one manifestation – such a ban could have all sorts of ramifications.

  9. I think it is perhaps the historic cross on which Jesus died that is the “the nexus” of Christian faith, rather than the crucifix (an ornamental representation of the cross)

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