White Middle Class Men Don't Get To Decide What 'Freedom Of Expression' Is

What is most painful about this whole episode is the lack of public outcry from our allies
PA Wire/PA Images

Yesterday I was asked by a security guard outside a particular faith school to produce documentation to verify that I was here to collect my two boys from football club. I am a visible Muslim woman and the school I was attempting to pick my kids up from wasn’t a Muslim faith school. It turns out that I was the only parent who was asked to produce documentation. All the others were let through. Yes, this is racism, and it’s enabled in the UK by comments from politicians like Boris Johnson who say that I look like a “bank robber”.

I wish white middle class men who feel a sense of entitlement to decide what freedom of expression is, and to whom it belongs, would keep their mouths shut.

This week Boris Johnson proclaimed he feels “fully entitled” to ask a Muslim woman to remove her niqab, in order for him to meet with her in his MP surgery. For someone who seems to care so much about his own freedom of expression, he wants to stop Muslim women from practising theirs. A woman’s entitlement to practice her faith and choose what she wears is freedom of expression. A human right for all, not just privileged rich, white men.

As Sayeeda Warsi has already said, Islamophobia has passed the dinner party test. What would have once been “inappropriate” comments that cause “offence”, has quickly moved onto Boris Johnson defending his “freedom of speech” and right to “debate” a woman’s choice to wear what she wants.

Anyone listening to Today programme this morning will appreciate the irony of four white men discussing the intent behind and the insensitive language used by men in their “debate” around what Muslim women wear. Here is an idea, why not talk to Muslim women about this? We have voices. Oh wait, Muslim women are only allowed a particular form of passive expression: one that reconfirms our status as the victims of misogynistic brown and black men, or as survivors of barbarism from our culture, faith and community.

According to the skewed world view of men like Boris Johnson, offence can only be taken if one ticks certain boxes. Similarly, freedom of expression likewise is only valid if it meets the criteria that politicians have determined. As a woman, I am free to reveal my body and make it pleasing to the male gaze. But I am not free to choose an alternative path where my identity is visible in ways that are more authentic to my sense of self and safety, but my body is covered. For men like Boris Johnson, it seems women can only exist in society if he can validate our humanity through our nakedness and vulnerability.

What is most painful about this whole episode is the lack of public outcry from our allies. Where are the feminists? This is violence against women. Where are those advocating equality and human rights? This is a direct attack on Muslim women’s right to freedom of expression. Where are our responsible politicians whom we elect to office to represent our views and values? Once again Muslim women are easy cannon fodder for the most powerful and privileged who want to further their careers and hurt whoever is necessary to get there.

If we need to have a debate, we should have it on the terms the sociologist Naaz Rasheed outlines: “It would be much better for debates about ‘barriers to integration’ to focus on racism, rather than blaming the people whose lives are blighted by it because of their choice of attire.”


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