Boris Burkas

With the Name of God, the Apparent, the Hidden

BORIS BURKAS

 

 

  1. The “Boris Burkas” controversy is a good opportunity to further debate around the Islamic veil in a civil way. A key issue is that the niqab or face-veil does not (currently) have the social acceptability in the UK that it does in some Muslim-majority countries. There needs to be more civilised dialogue to help wider society understand why thousands of British women choose to wear a face-veil in public. Conversely, the principles of Islamic ethics and law dictate that public security and safety is of paramount importance: we also need an internal dialogue amongst proponents or defenders of the face-veil about this issue.
  2. It is important to summarise what Boris said: he critiqued the Danes, some of whom still swim stark naked in public, for banning the burka (or correctly, niqab). He expressed the wish that the fringe practice of face-veiling, at which he poked fun, would disappear in Britain, but opposed a ban. He also echoed Jack Straw’s 2006 call for face-veiling to end.
  3. I recently spent an hour in a residential area of the Highfields district of Leicester, and observed that about half of all women walking on that street wore the niqab. Several had teenage daughters with them who covered their hair but not the face.  There are clearly a few parts of UK cities, such as Birmingham, Leicester, Blackburn and elsewhere, where the niqab is quite common, although nationally it is a fringe practice.
  4. Face-veiling was clearly known in pre-Islamic Arabia, including amongst men. Reasons for it included simple environmental ones such as the problem of sandstorms – Arab horsemen riding with their faces covered are a familiar sight in the desert. Cultural practices often become divorced from their origins. It is for this reason that Tuareg men still cover their faces with the tails of their turbans, sometimes even when indoors. At the Marrakech Declaration conference in 2016, the most senior Islamic cleric of Niger attended wearing this traditional Tuareg dress.
  5. Aside from culture, veiling also of course has religious and spiritual dimensions. Islamic culture and tradition continued and adapted many Jewish, Christian and Arabian pre-Islamic practices. The veiling of women in Islam came to fundamentally symbolise higher theological and metaphysical truths, the most central of which is that God is veiled by creation, and the veil (hijab) between humanity and God is lifted in the Hereafter for those who purify their souls sufficiently. Now, God has the Most Beautiful Names: a traditional Islamic idea is that the masculine represents and manifests Transcendence, Majesty and the Outer whilst the feminine represents and manifests Immanence, Beauty and the Inner. (These metaphysical concepts related to gender are explored in ‘The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought’ by Sachiko Murata, 1992.) Of course, there are other, non-traditional views on the subject, especially more modern ones.
  6. Thus, the Muslim woman became veiled because she represented the Divine Beloved and the Divine Beauty. Her veiling in public also became an extension of her home-based role, where she remained in purdah (a curtain or veil), a term that has ironically been borrowed for the suspension of UK parliaments before elections. Occasionally, veiling applied to men too: we can also be beloved sometimes, and there is a minority South Asian Muslim practice of veiling the bridegroom – I have witnessed this at a wedding in the UK. Of course, the Christian practice of veiling the bride is well known in the UK. The Muslim caliph, sultan or local emir was sometimes veiled in public, to preserve an element of mystery, respect and power. His doorkeeper was literally known as “the veiler” (hajib). Metaphysically, the ruler here represented the Divine Majesty and Divine Power. Of course, there is a gender-asymmetry here that may be mistaken for, or perverted into, gender-inequality, as Munira Mirza alludes to in her article on this subject.
  7. Boris was wrong to comment that he could find no scriptural justification for face-veiling in the Koran, on two counts. Firstly, his comment is inaccurate, since traditionally, some Islamic authorities have interpreted some verses to include face-veiling, as I described in detail in my 2011 paper, Islam and the Veil. Secondly, his comment implies that scriptural literalism is justified, whereas scripture was always supposed to be read alongside considerations of history, society, morality, spirituality and ethics. NB: at least Boris was closer to the mark than the Prince of Wales, who famously and inaccurately said in his 1990s lecture at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, that “veiling was a cultural tradition, and not from the Prophet of Islam.”
  8. Clearly, face-veiling is not fully accepted in UK society, as politicians’ comments from Jack Straw (2006) onwards illustrate. However, it is not totally unknown, so there are cultural blindspots in operation. I have already mentioned the bridal veil, a beautiful Christian tradition. There is also the practice of entertainers and party-goers wearing masks. In 2013, I attended an interfaith meeting at Lambeth Palace, that was also addressed by Baroness Warsi: in his closing remarks, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to “masqued parties” in previous centuries at the palace, that he said were a euphemism for wife-swapping parties. To this day, British newspapers continue to report about private sex parties where all participants wear masks. This again raises the question of private vs. public practice.
  9. In contrast to the UK, face-veiling is clearly socially-acceptable, and even the norm, in some parts of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority countries, where people might invert Boris’ comments and speak of “bank robbers dressed as women.” In Saudi Arabia, I noticed that niqabs were of different levels of opacity and transparency, and saw young girls having great fun lifting and lowering their veils as they peered out at the world in preparation for a religious, socially-conservative adult life. During my years of teaching at mosque, college and university in the UK and Pakistan, the female students adopted diverse dress-codes with regard to covering or not covering their heads and faces, and there was always social acceptance from other students and teachers, both male and female. I have also come across face-veiling teachers in Islamic schools in the UK and Pakistan. In Pakistan, “Burka Avenger” is a popular cartoon series promoting education and female empowerment.  It was so successful that it was bought by Nickelodeon Pakistan. Islamic face-veiling has come to the UK via British multiculturalism and needs to be understood seriously, rather than treated with knee-jerk reactions.
  10. Having grown up in the UK since the age of five, I was at first uncomfortable talking to women in niqabs, but I learnt to respect their choices and to gauge basic emotions such as sadness or joy from their eyes. To return to a spiritual aspect of this question, I find sunglasses, that are obviously worn by both men and women, annoyingly including indoors, to be far more of a barrier to meaningful contact: in many spiritual traditions around the world, the eyes are a window into, and a mirror of, the soul. Clearly, eye-contact is prohibited by ray-bans, whereas at least you can tell if a niqab-wearer is smiling from the twinkling of her eyes. If we can’t see each other’s eyes, we can’t see into each other’s souls.
  11. Having said all of the above, there is a clear principle of Islamic ethics and law that public welfare (maslaha) overrides most other considerations. In western, (post-)Christian societies, there are genuine concerns about social acceptability and public security. This must be considered in the debate, especially by defenders and proponents of face-veiling.
  12. Anecdotally, I have come across several western non-Muslim men, who describe the veil as being “sexy” and “mysteriously attractive.” This raises another internal question for some Muslims: if the veil is supposed to symbolise and promote modesty and chastity, how do we guard against it becoming counter-productive?

CONCLUSIONS

  1. Boris Johnson should apologise for the offence caused by his comparing face-veiled women to pillar-boxes and bank robbers. Perhaps in the future, such comments will not be offensive because the national debate will be mature and integrated enough for face-veiled women themselves to laugh along with the jokes. But with all the racial and religious tensions in the UK, particularly around Islam, visibly-different Muslim women are one of our most vulnerable minorities, especially those who wear the niqab. A senior politician, a possible future Prime Minister, should display higher standards in public and be more responsible: for example, he probably knows that he would never get away with similarly mocking the characteristic dress of British ultra-orthodox Jews.(DISCLAIMER & APOLOGY: On a private electronic discussion group of salafi activists c. 2009-10, I once made a flippant remark about our men and women dressing like “clowns and ninjas.” I was making a serious point about integration and traditional dress, by which I stand: public perception and respect for local society is important in Islam. But the comment was made public and used against me by my opponents during the 2011 Tawhid Mosque controversy, so for the record, although many salafis told me that they found the comment funny, I would like to apologise for any offence caused.)
  2. We need more civilised and mature debate in the UK to address at least two major aspects of this issue. Firstly, I hope that more proponents of the niqab, especially face-veiled women themselves, articulate their thinking and experience so that wider society understands the practice better, leading to more social acceptance and less fear around it, as exists already in many Muslim-majority countries. Secondly, I hope that the proponents and defenders of the face-veil consider genuine concerns in wider society around security and facial visibility, since the niqab has not been native to these shores in the past.
  3. Those insisting that the niqab be discarded are taking an illiberal position: it is better to have a respectful debate. If, as a result, some or all women remove their niqabs, then all well and good from the perspective of opponents of niqab, but those women’s free choice must be respected. I know of several British Muslim women who used to wear a niqab, but stopped doing so for reasons of social cohesion after 9/11 and 7/7. On the other hand, I was told anecdotally that more young women wore the niqab as a defiant response to Jack Straw in 2006. And in the same year, a white British female convert to Islam who had worn the niqab for 10 years, gave Channel 4’s alternative Christmas Day message.
  4. It is better to debate a matter without settling it, than to settle it without debating. I hope and pray that this whole controversy leads to a better understanding of the issue in the UK through constructive debate.
  5. Boris Bikes were a huge success. There might be a lucrative commercial opportunity right now for someone to market a suitable line of “Boris Burkas.” But joking aside, I would genuinely love to see Boris discuss this issue with a niqab-wearer, especially one that could match his wit and stand up for her free choice. It would be very helpful for both sides to have such an interaction. I hope someone can arrange such an encounter.

 

Usama Hasan

London

14th August 2018

 

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3 Responses to “Boris Burkas”

  1. Mohammed Shafiq Says:

    AA Usama. Many (Western) women refuse to leave the house without their makeup on. You Tube has many video tutorials now showing women who are totally transformed by make up. Isn’t this just an acceptable form of face covering? Perhaps the driving force of such face covering is that it makes women feel more secure. As such it is perhaps a sad indictment of society. It would be a fascinating topic for anthropological study.

  2. Veronika Says:

    Thank you for above text. It used critical thinking without offence.
    I used to live not far from Highfields in Leicester for 7 years. I used to interact daily with women wearing niqab in that area forexample in my kids primary Islamic school. And I would give you other suggestion why the women choose the niqab in the UK.When first muslims try to come to this country they didn’t cover their faces nor it was their religious or cultural belief. I observed that, this practice become wide spread since the end of 90. Right from the mosques and the preachers coming there. The man and women been told there, that this is required to practice properly. I been to so many Islamic talks across country in last 13 years and this was mentioned regularly in them. This was not happening in UK only but across the Europe after the war in Jugoslavia. I would call it new religious colinisation from one branch of Islam to others. Generally the women covering become over night one of the most important obsessive topic in Islamic lectures. Then more primary- secondary Islamic schools were established where the head covering became part of the school uniform. My daughters been force to it when hot in the PE classes and they were only in the age of 5-6 one of the reasons they no longer go to Islamic school. There is also secondary and primary school in Highfields where the face covering is part of the school uniform when kids are out with the school. Than, these kids visits madresas with same opinion. They live in neighbourhood with other very similar thinking people.They rerally visit other parts of the city it’s self – this what I understood from talking with other mums. They mostly move around Highfields and Evington. From small age they been told Mr. Is the Master of the house. These females from the small age were under the rules of dads which imposed the niqabs, been only allowed to play with kids with similar thinking, visiting similar mosques and schools. And supported by mothers with similar upbringings. And then married to similarly thinking families.
    My niqabi Neigbour ones stopped me in the shopping mall. I never saw her she came towards me and speaks to me. She said she saw me from the window and she only went out because she had newborn and need to do shopping for it. Otherwise she is all the time home because she is scared from the kuffars neighbours her husband is telling her about in our area, and some shia families around to! Her second sentence was if I noticed the shias to. I thing what is happening in last 20 years in Europe has mostly to do with cultural and religious colonisation on muslims here. And brain washing. Not 100% but majority. I think we should support more diverse opinions in mosques. Diverse neighbourhoods. And Set certain boundaries in religious schools and madresas. Support more preaches of inclusion and love rather than seclusion and hate. Make sure that each Islamic talk have many speakers with different opinions not that each talker has reach same conclusion. Banning is the same tool as imposing ,we would be no different to these mysoginst preachers and males. But what we should make sure about is, that women have safe options to choose from without causing harm to them selves or family disruption while doing so.

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