The row over the right to wear the burqa in public has blurred the traditional lines between conservative and liberal ideas, argues Ben Flatman

Ben Flatman

Boris Johnson’s recent article on the burqa has brought him unprecedented levels of media attention. The global coverage exceeds anything he got as foreign secretary and appears to have boosted his previously unfancied chances of challenging for the Tory leadership. For a vocal grouping on the left, the perception is that Johnson has jumped headfirst into Steve Bannon-inspired populism. His defenders point out that the article was arguing against a ban (a point seemingly lost on many) and claim the alleged offence caused by the article is largely manufactured. Whether the article was a cynical dog-whistle to Islamophobes, or a misunderstood defence of British liberal values, Johnson has sparked a debate that has ramifications that go far beyond the veil itself.

What makes the veil such a potent symbol in the West, is the way in which it challenges contemporary assumptions about how women and religion should interact with shared space. It is a religious, cultural and political statement rolled into one. Feminists spent decades fighting for a woman’s right to congregate freely, wear what she wanted and engage fully in previously male-dominated spaces. Ironically, given their often-Islamist standpoint, those defending the wearing of the burqa have been co-opting the same language of liberal individualism to assert a woman’s right to cover her face in public.

In this line of argument, isn’t banning a woman from freely choosing to wear the burqa a step backwards towards the male control of how women dress and interact in public? Taken at face value, Johnson was making the same point. However objectionable or absurd some may find the burqa, he was arguing that the liberal response can never be to ban it – to do so would be a fundamentally illiberal response.

By bringing a visible sign of religious affiliation or faith into the public sphere or workplace, the burqa also directly challenges some deep-rooted assumptions about the essentially secular nature of our shared spaces. So deeply engrained is the notion that religion is a private matter that any public display of religious affiliation has come to be seen as an aberration. When a British Airways employee was told to remove a visible crucifix at work in 2006, it also sparked media controversy as well as sympathy from many. Wearing the burqa asserts an individual’s right to express their religious identity openly in a way that we are no longer used to.

The burqa itself predates Islam and its rootedness in Koranic scripture is widely questioned. It was also until recently largely unheard of in much of the Islamic world. During the two years I spent living in Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, the burqa, or indeed female head covering of any kind, was only sporadically observed. What has arguably given the burqa its new lease of life and potency, is its capacity in a Western context, to help create an avowedly Muslim identity that seeks to actively differentiate itself from the wider cultural orthodoxy. It was once a symbol of female social subordination within a few traditional cultures. But in an entirely new context, at least in the eyes of some, it has become an expression of radical resistance to globalised, secular liberalism.

The burqa also happens to be one of the most architectural of fashion statements, blending clothing with portable habitat. The veil itself highlights and accentuates the dimension of all clothing that is about enclosure, protection, observation and concealment. In the context of a largely western and secular society, wearing the burqa can also of course be interpreted as an act of provocation, detachment or even passive aggression. While seemingly a rejection of individualism, like so many other political fashion statements, it is also a powerful assertion of a shared identity and outlook. According to some, it actively challenges the prevalence of the privileged male gaze, while critics might argue that it simply legitimises traditional male-female power relations.

It’s hardly a surprise then that the debate around the burqa has become a political minefield. The current controversy underlines the persistence of the female body and the role of public space as two of the most enduring battlegrounds in Western political and cultural discourse. What is unusual is the way in which the burqa disrupts what are normally neatly drawn lines between left and right, liberal and conservative. The political left has found itself aligned with a conservative religious movement that seeks to proscribe the way in which women dress, while the populist right in the UK and much of Europe have cast themselves as defenders of a secular notion of women’s liberation originally fought for by 1970s feminists.

Johnson may have expressed himself inappropriately but attempts to shut down the wider discussion would be counterproductive. We cannot pretend to ignore the burqa and should not shy away from questioning what it represents. Few garments are as politically charged or challenging to our assumptions about liberal values and normative codes of behaviour in the public realm. In a healthy democracy this should be a worthwhile and valid public debate. The burqa controversy is one thing we certainly shouldn’t be covering up.