Boris Johnson, the U.K.’s would-be prime minister, recently found himself at the center of a debate on the niqab and burqa. That he should find himself at the center of any discussion is exactly where he wants to be. But what’s more interesting than Johnson’s premiership ambitions is the debate he has spurred. The whole episode raises questions of freedom of speech, the right to offend, and the right to scrutinize and criticize religion.
In his Telegraph column, he wrote in opposition to the Danish burqa ban but landed himself in trouble by ungraciously referring to the women who wear them as looking like “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.” In a climate of polarized political opinion, it should come as no surprise that the criticism of Johnson has been as vociferous as the praise.
My take is less binary. I share Johnson’s view that the niqab and the burqa are “oppressive” and also oppose the ban. I do, however, take issue with the churlish words he used. The bare minimum we should expect from our elected representatives is civil language. I think many Jews might well feel offended if we heard an MP, of any stripe, using similarly insulting language about Hasidim and shtreimels.
What I hadn’t known until this week is that there is a sect of Jewish women in Israel who don a burqa-like garment. By pure coincidence, my friend who’s on holiday with her family in Israel, was passing through the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and made this discovery. She took some discreet pictures and sent them to me. The words she used to describe what she saw were blunt: “medieval,” “disturbing,” and “violated.” That’s how she felt seeing women and little girls shrouded in layers of black cloth. I shared her sentiments and some more. Does that make me a bigot or a Judeophobe?
Annoyingly, Johnson has made it harder to critique the veiling because doing so can land you in the territory of bigots and dog whistlers. He has emboldened the extremists by helping to silence the moderates lest they be tarred with the same brush. This is how we knock nuance out of public debate.
The point of the burqa–or the frumqa as I have gleefully discovered it is called in relation to this sect–is to make women invisible and to protect men from their base desires. How very droll. The Haredi burqa sect, as it is known, was created by a woman called Bruria Keren but has just a few hundred members. Keren’s own words encapsulate the rationale for covering up every inch of flesh—“I follow these rules of modesty to save men from themselves. A man who sees a woman’s body parts is sexually aroused, and this might cause him to commit sin. Even if he doesn’t actually sin physically, his impure thoughts are sin in themselves.” The frumqa lacks any recognized rabbinic backing and there is nothing in Jewish law that ordains this attire. Nonetheless, there are Jewish and Muslim women who wear it and we must make sure they are safe to do so.
Boris Johnson has the right to scrutinize ideas, even ones as sacrosanct as faith, but he should do so without dehumanizing or belittling the people whose lives they affect. If those who seek to lead us can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, how can we?
Claudia Mendoza is the Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the Jewish Leadership Council