One of the best-known politicians in our country has just said he wants to force women to take their clothing off at his own MP surgery. So where’s the feminist outrage?
In his column for The Telegraph this week, Boris Johnson said he felt “fully entitled” to ask women to remove their niqab when they came to his MP’s surgery. He also said they look like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”. Despite multiple senior women and men in his party calling for him to make an apology, he has yet to say sorry. Because he’s not. Can you imagine a day at work where your boss and multiple colleagues have asked you to say sorry and you could get away with doing nothing and still keep your job? Why is Boris any different?
Demanding that a Muslim woman remove her niqab in front of strangers is similar to demanding a secular woman strip naked, and we can all agree that no man is ever “fully entitled” to that, let alone in his place of work.
So why are feminists largely silent? Is it because Boris Johnson is directing his comments specifically at Muslim women? From openly racist, sexist and dehumanising insults to Muslim women’s appearance to the political commentary around the military invasion of Afghanistan, western politicians have frequently used Muslim women as a symbol of for their so-called liberal values. This is precisely what Boris is doing on his brazen path to number 10. But there’s nothing liberal about directly controlling women and their choices, and yet there seems to be little backlash from feminists about this.
Right now in the UK, Muslim women are having their hijabs pulled off in our streets. Racist, sexist violence against Muslim women increased by 26% between 2016 and 2017. Attacks like this against Muslim women happen in public. Hasn’t the core of feminism always been a battle about women’s right to exist in public spaces safely?
Every woman knows what it feels like to walk down the street in fear of being followed or attacked, so where is the empathy and outrage for Muslim women who are being openly targeted by politicians like Johnson in an already “viscerally racist” climate? The violence that Muslim women are facing right now is largely met with silence from white feminists, even those who spend their lives fighting violence against women.
People like me who consider themselves feminists need to do more, starting today. The fight for women’s liberation from male violence must include all women. A good place to start is by supporting MEND, a great not-for-profit who are tackling islamophobia in the UK by encouraging British Muslims in local communities to get more involved in media and politics. And secondly, to publicly show your solidarity when someone is experiencing a racist attack in public.
Women’s rights are for all women, not just a select group. Just as freedom of expression is for all people, not just rich, white men like Johnson. Racism and sexism are two different oppressions that Muslim women experience in a painfully compounded way, and the role of allyship across racial and gender differences is vital. Just as women need men to speak up and call out sexism in all-male spaces, white women need to speak up against and call out racism against Muslim women for what it is, everywhere we go.
We all know there’s nothing progressive or liberal about dehumanising women based on their clothing, or policing women’s choices. Muslim women are no different, and in fact, this is such a transparent political phenomenon that there’s a whole book on it called Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Iughod. Read it. It’s vital that we respect women’s agency and listen to Muslim women; only then will people like Johnson stop kicking them around through the press like political footballs.
The police have already warned that there’s likely to be a further increase in islamophobic hate crime as Brexit looms closer, and we all need to be asking ourselves what we’re doing to halt the emboldened racism in the UK that harms women. In a climate where Johnson’s vitriol is getting such airtime, we cannot afford to stay silent, and we must accept that our silence actively hurts our Muslim sisters too.