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Boris Johnson’s offensive comments about the burqa, explained

Some conservative white men in Britain are obsessed with what Muslim women wear on their heads.

People in the UK protest Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s offensive comments about Muslim women who wear burqas.
People in the UK protest Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s offensive comments about Muslim women who wear burqas.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A certain small set of powerful, conservative white men in Britain just can’t seem to keep quiet when it comes to weighing in on what Muslim women in Europe should and should not be allowed to wear in public.

Last week, Denmark’s controversial “burqa ban” went into effect. The law technically bars people from wearing any “garment that hides the face” in public places.

But it’s mostly intended to ban the face coverings that some Muslim women wear — specifically the burqa, which completely covers the face and body, leaving a mesh panel to see through, and the niqab, the face veil that covers the lower half of the face but leaves the eyes visible.

Muslim headwear worn by women. From L to R: hijab, khimar, chador, niqab, burqa. Christina Animashaun, Vox

Conservative MP Boris Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary, just couldn’t resist opining on the development in Denmark.

In a column in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper on Sunday, Johnson wrote that while he doesn’t support a burqa ban, he does think they’re “ridiculous” because they make women look like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.”

“If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree,” Johnson wrote. “I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”

He also said that if “a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber,” he would ask her to remove her face covering in order to speak to him. He added that humans “must be able to see each other’s faces.”

Johnson’s comments caused an uproar.

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission said his comments risked “vilifying Muslim women.” British Prime Minister Theresa May — a member of Johnson’s Conservative party — and other party leaders called on him to apologize (he is standing by his comments and refuses to apologize). And the BBC reports that Johnson is now “facing a possible investigation into breaches of the Conservative Party code of conduct.”

Pictured: Boris Johnson dangling from a zipline he got stuck on during a live sporting event in a public park in London in 2012. Clearly a man concerned with not looking ridiculous in public.
Pictured: Boris Johnson — clearly a man concerned with not looking ridiculous in public.
Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

But the public backlash against Johnson apparently wasn’t bad enough to deter yet another influential white conservative British man from adding his twopence.

On Wednesday, Iain Martin, a conservative columnist for the Times newspaper in London, tweeted that one of the “many reasons to dislike” the burqa is that they “disrespect” deaf people:

But deaf people on Twitter weren’t having any of that nonsense.

Almost immediately, deaf people began responding to Martin’s tweet, slamming him for using their disability to defend bigotry and Islamophobia:

Martin responded directly to many of these critical tweets with snarky comebacks, at various points calling the criticism “bizarre, rage-filled, leftie rubbish” and “supreme illiberal liberal arrogance” and insisting that he was merely making “a fairly straightforward observation.”

Johnson and Martin’s views are part of a wider anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise in Europe

Burqas and niqabs are either fully or partially banned in public spaces in a number of European countries, including France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

That’s despite the fact that official government figures in these countries show that only a minuscule number of Muslim women living there wear face coverings — in some of the countries, the numbers were actually too low to even count.

So what gives? If there aren’t hordes of veiled Muslim women clogging the streets of London or Paris, why all the fuss?

The answer, at least in part, has to do with the rise of nationalism and populism in Europe.

“Underpinning these debates is the degree to which attitudes toward Islam have become conflated with populist and nationalist concerns about preserving ‘European’ — read: Christian — identity,” Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton wrote in June.

“Recent Pew polls have found that, increasingly, Christian identity in Western Europe has strong nationalist echoes,” she continued. “Churchgoing Christians in most Western European countries tend to have more extreme anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments than their non-practicing or non-religiously affiliated counterparts.”

When Johnson and Martin and their ilk make deliberate public statements specifically singling out two items of clothing worn by a tiny minority of Muslim women and calling them ridiculous and disrespectful, it’s not about fashion, or disability advocacy, or any other excuse. It’s about preserving the “purity” of white Christian identity in Europe.

Since they’re apparently incapable of keeping their mouths shut about these issues, they could at least do everyone the courtesy of saying what they actually mean.

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