In his weekly column appearing in the Daily Telegraph on August 5, Boris Johnson denounced the full burka-ban that went into effect in Denmark earlier this month. Instead, he argued in support of a partial-ban in the UK of the burka in those social circumstances which “require” the visualization of the face. Denouncing the expectation that women wear the burqa as “weird and bullying,” Boris distanced himself from bullies of all stripes and colors who involve themselves in the private matters of women’s dress: Danish bullies who ban the niqab; Chechen bullies who encourage men to splatter uncovered women with paintballs; Muslim bullies who coerce women to don the burka; Nativist bullies who wish to ban the niqab in their country; Extremist bullies who would celebrate a burka ban as proof of the clash of civilizations thesis. In all this talk of bullies who oppress women, Boris, in a crafty sleight of rhetorical hand, casts himself as the antithesis of a bully. An anti-bully. But for all his outward projecting of bully-ness onto others, he does nothing better than convince us that he, like none other, is the ultimate bully of them all.
A bully is overbearing, insolent fellow who harms and intimidates people of weaker status and position. The ultimate bully, sort of like a mafia don, does the bullying himself, but also incites his entourage to bully others. And that is what Boris does in his column. Boris bullies and provokes the bullying of Muslim women. Here’s how:
No scriptural basis, no meaning except his
The first thing bullies do is select their target. Boris targets the burka. According to Boris the Exegete, there is no scriptural authority to wearing the burka. The fact of the matter is that within Islamic jurisprudential texts (typically ones Boris cannot be imagined to have read) there exists an ongoing and open debate whether the niqab is a prescriptive or voluntary matter. This is important to foreground, because for many wearers of the burka, the burka HAS A SCRIPTURAL BASIS and is not merely cultural. Yet peddlers of misinformation, such as Boris, persist in rehearsing this now hackneyed and oft-recited script of the scripture-less basis of the burka because it legitimizes a free-for-all against the burka. It allows Boris to strip the burka of its spiritual dimension, weave it into a cultural practice, and subsequently propose a ban with less resistance as it helps him to evade charges of violating freedom of conscience.
Singing his “no-scriptural authority” refrain, Boris targets the burka as a cultural practice to be disciplined and contained by the state. After all, it is in his own words and imagery, just some sort of “head-gear that obscures the female face,” a kind of counter-culture artefact akin to tongue spikes and nose bolts worn by recalcitrant and rebellious teenagers in the throes of a passing search for identity. Like parental consent for under-aged tattoo seekers, the burka requires state intervention to discipline.
But from the way Boris speaks of the burka, it is obvious he never spoke to a woman who wears one (at least not on the subject of why she does). Boris diminishes the burka as a thing that hides a woman’s face. But, this definition only makes sense from his point of view—as the observer of niqab-wearing-woman. From his perspective, the niqab obscures. But for the wearer herself, the niqab does not. Her vision is intact, unobstructed. However, for Boris, the burka is only what he, the observer and interlocuter, perceives—as nothing but an obscuration. In a typical bully fashion, he makes irrelevant what the niqab means and does for the wearer. She does not matter. Hidden from view, she is mistaken to have no views.
But I am generous in calling this a mere mistake on Boris’s part. It is would be more aptly described as Boris’s refusal to recognize alternative forms of femininity and feminine consciousness. Refusal to even imagine and acknowledge alternative ways of being. Refusal to consider burka-wearing women’s point of view. Boris does not want to see Muslim women as subjects of their sartorial choices. That would give her agency. For bullies, targets need to be helpless, powerless.
Boris’s imagined burka and burka-wearer
Emptying the burka of its meaning, Boris continues his bullying by arrogantly assigning the burka his own views. Or better put, he disparages and degrades it. Diverging from white, ethnocentric notions of what it means to act and be female, the burka to Boris is “oppressive.” Here he ascribes an inherent quality to the burka. But surely Boris ought to know that nothing is inherently anything. The burka is not in and of itself oppressive. It becomes oppressive in a particular context of oppression or in a specific relation of coercion. Outside of context, actors, and relations, it has no meaning. But we cannot expect Boris to think very deeply about such issues, or deviate very far from the narrow-minded repertoire of reductive, stock meanings from which stereotypes of Muslim practices are drawn and circulate. Because that’s what bullies do. They prefer simplistic, populist, and unsophisticated ideas because they have political currency. These views allow the weak to be instrumentalized to enhance the bully’s own status and political weight.
But what make Boris into an ultimate bully is that his instrumentalization of the burka incites towards more bullying. Boris crassly writes off the practice of the burka as “absolutely ridiculous”. But what is a thing that is ridiculous but that it deserves revulsion and rejection? Here Boris invites ridicule, scorn, derision, mockery of not just this practice but the very women who uphold it, for he likens these women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.”
As letterboxes, burka wearers to Boris are dehumanized objects, passive, immobile. They receive action, they do not act themselves. They are acted upon. Indeed, they have no subjectivity, no humanity. Here Boris recycles yet another flaccid trope of Muslim women and invites more discriminatory practice and more verbal and physical violence towards Muslim women. Feminist scholars and activists have for decades now pointed out that the first step in legitimizing violence towards women is their dehumanization. Boris’s comments bully Muslim women and encourage more of it.
As bank robbers, burka wearers to Boris are linked to criminality. Let us remind ourselves what criminals are. They are threats, outsiders, representatives of social disorder. They are the unknown deviants who live and move amongst us. They are looked down upon as the lumpens, detritus, and refuse of our society. Law-breaking delinquents, villainous malefactors, fraudulent marginals, Boris heaps all this calumny onto Muslim women with this association. And for what crime? For departing from his little norms of acceptable dress. But what I really think Boris is doing with this association is evoking the specter of threat linked to Islam. Boris uses the hyper-visibility of the burka as a signifier of Muslim “separation” and “difference” to entangle Muslim women’s dress with populist fears of an encroaching and growing Islamic presence in Britain.
And what do we do with criminals? We lock them up, we incarcerate them, we put them in mad-houses, we sweep them into ghettos. Surveille, contain, punish, and discipline. Boris’s bank robber analogy exposes how he views Muslims and how he believes they should be appropriately treated. Incontrovertibly, his analogy encourages vigilante punishers of deviance who engage in social discipline of the street-variation.
The right to bully from the “bully-pulpit?”
Boris is a bully, so what? some might say. We live in a land that upholds freedom of speech (especially when it comes to our right to criticize Islam and Muslims). Boris’s words are an exercise of free speech.
I can concede to that. Boris’s column is certainly speech freely made (in all senses of the word). But in my view, it is speech that is tactless and reckless. Tactless because we will encounter many social practices that prickle our sensibilities within a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-lingual nation, but that does not mean we must express this discomfort in crude and demeaning ways. Reckless when the target of our free speech is a group of women who are already statistically marginalized in various sectors of society such as housing, education, and employment, and represent the preferred targets of Islamophobic hate crime.
In common parlance, tactless and reckless speech is speech that bullies. Yes, it may be free speech/speech freely given, but when it is speech that taunts, mocks and invites aggression, we are allowed to criticize this speech as morally irresponsible and deserving censure. As a past and current holder of many important public offices in Britain and poised to become the leader of the conservative party, Boris holds a significant amount of political influence. His words are not easily lost in the sea of words that flow and circulate within public discourse. They are weighed, measured, considered, and, invariably by many, nodded to and acted upon. Boris should be aware of the impact of his words, and if he is incapable of doing so, we must hold him collectively to account for issuing them in the first place. Boris is giving new meaning to the expression “bully-pulpit.”
Nikab-wearing women have demanded an apology from Boris and rightly so. It is completely blameworthy that a public official bully a weak and historically marginalized religious group for his own political interests, especially in a context where such maneuverings can be reasonably expected to aggravate and exacerbate the existing climate of hostility towards Muslim women.
Amina Shareef is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.
Image Credit: Author