Boris Johnson’s Islamophobic comments about women who wear burkhas looking like “letter boxes” betray his ambitions to win support from a far-right movement that is on the march in the UK, says Ayesha Hazarika.
Just when the Edinburgh festival is getting into the swing of things, Britain’s biggest political comedian strikes again. Except this time no one’s laughing.
Now that Boris Johnson has relieved himself from his duties as Foreign Secretary, where his main achievement was contributing to a much longer prison sentence for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, he can now zone in on his favourite pastime – trying to get as much attention as he can so he can one day be our Prime Minister.
Boris really believes he is the bee’s knees because he can move seamlessly between big jobs in politics and his £275k-a-year Telegraph column (a fee which he once described as chicken feed – man, I need a better agent), then say ridiculous things that everyone laps up and, once again, he’s the centre of attention which is his favourite place.
His latest column is an attempt to be the kind of guy who tells it like it is. Who won’t stand for all this political correctness gone mad. Because of course, nothing says tough guy like picking on of the most marginalised groups in society – Muslim women.
In his latest piece, he says he disagrees with Denmark’s policy to ban the burkha and face coverings, but he then goes on to say that Muslim women who wear the full-face covering called the niqab look like bank robbers or letter boxes. This isn’t even funny. It’s illiterate, dog whistle, Trumpian language which is designed to appeal to Tommy Robinson supporters and it’s dangerous. Full disclosure. I’m Muslim but I’m not religious and I like a glass or three of Sancerre. I don’t eat bacon but that’s because I’m still traumatised by what happened when I worked for Ed Miliband and that sandwich. I am totally Westernised and would not choose to wear anything which covered me up, although the idea of a burkini has a certain appeal when you feel this far from beach-ready having lived on mac-and-cheese toasties – the hit of the festival so far.
Of course, I don’t love the idea of the niqab, but I also don’t love the idea of men dictating what Muslim women should wear – whether it’s Muslim men or white men like Boris Johnson. I loathe men telling any women what to wear. But they do. Because it’s control. Controlling what women wear is a big part of the patriarchy. Often, we are told we have to wear very little. It was tabloid men who invented page three and it’s a major part of our popular culture to encourage very young women to wear as little as possible and look as hyper-sexualised and constantly up-for-it. The message that screams out from our newspapers, magazines, advertising campaigns, music videos, television and film screens is simple – women (especially young ‘uns) have to look sexy and available all the time. That is what the men who run everything tell us. Until a man sexually attacks a woman ... then the men who run the criminal justice system tell us “Sorry ladies ... you shouldn’t have dressed like that after all because you were asking for it”. Don’t kid yourself that women are only being oppressed in other cultures.
If Johnson really wants to help Muslim women, I will support him all the way. If he wants to help them learn better English and improve their skills so they can be independent, socialise, earn money and integrate more into British society, then let’s get campaigning – but he doesn’t care about Muslim women. The idea that Boris Johnson and a load of gammon-faced men with white knights and Britain First in their Twitter handles have had a sudden conversion to intersectional feminism is the best joke I’ve heard all festival. Do me a favour.
Johnson is shamefully using Muslim women as a pawn in the wider toxic, nasty, racist political climate. He can see that the far-right is on the march. He knows that there’s a growing group of people who want to a racist, anti-immigrant political leader and he’s playing to that.
And words matter. Attacks on Muslim women are on the rise (there were 31 in Scotland last year, according to the organisation Tell Mama) and the perpetrators are impressionable, young white men who feast on paranoia and a betrayal narrative which spreads like a virus on social media. This isn’t about taking offence. This about normalising hate to point where it’s so in the social bloodstream, that Muslim women are being verbally abused, intimidated, spat at, having their veils ripped off and even physically attacked.
Is that what free speech means to you Boris? Is that what “real British” culture is all about – big powerful white men getting small brown women beaten up on the street? Does that make you feel good? By the way, the biggest danger these women will ever pose is to your health ... when they try and feed you too many samosas or insist on that fourth helping of curry. This is nasty, racist Islamophobia. And it’s crawling all over the Conservative party, the way anti-Semitism is riddling Labour. Wow – what a time to be alive.
Johnson is the polar opposite of what integrity and decency looks like. In a way, he sums up our rotten, racist political cesspit right now. A rich, powerful old Etonian who will say anything and do anything to further his own political career at any cost. A man who has lied so many times it’s literally impossible to keep up. A man who has lied about his many affairs. Who lied about Brexit. Who lied in his resignation speech. A serial liar who thinks he has a God-given right to be Prime Minister one day because he was born to rule. And the way our politics is going right now – fuelled on lies, anger, racism and stupidity – it might just happen. Good grief. Thank God I have an Edinburgh show to take my mind off it all.
Ayesha performs Girl on Girl until Saturday, 11 August, 6.45pm at the Gilded Balloon Teviot.