An expert in international human rights at the University of Sussex has criticised former foreign secretary Boris Johnson claiming his comments on women who wear burqas “legitimise Islamophobic sentiment”.
Dr Stephanie Berry , Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights Law at the University of Sussex, said Mr Johnson’s comments came at a time of rising hate crime against Muslim women and that Mr Johnson had failed in his duty as an MP but inflaming tensions on the sensitive subject.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, Mr Johnson compared Muslim women in burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.”
In response, Dr Berry, who was a legal advisor for the applicant in the European Court of Human Rights case, SAS v France, challenging the legality of the French ’burqa ban’ in 2013, has said: "The recent controversy surrounding Boris Johnson’s comments about the burqa, in his column in the Telegraph, raise a number of important questions about the portrayal of Islam and Muslim women in the press. This is not simply a question of ’liberal values’ and the right to cause offence, but of the legitimization of far-right rhetoric and the deliberate marginalisation of British Muslims.
“In describing women who wear the burqa as ’postboxes’ and ’bank robbers’, Boris simultaneously dehumanises and vilifies them. This correlates with the view of those espousing liberal values in support of Boris; Muslim women are contradictorily perceived to be both passive victims of Muslim men and a direct threat to broader society. The voices of Muslim women, seeking to assert their right to manifest their religion, are often silenced in public debates on the issue.
"In contrast, white men espouse the incompatibility of the burqa with ’our’ way of life, a view based on their interpretation of a religious symbol rather than the meaning attributed to it by those who wear it. In so doing, they argue that the burqa is offensive and incompatible with liberal values. This is not only patronising but it removes the agency of Muslim women and suggests that British Muslims are not accepted as part of British society. The right to cause offense, that we are reminded is a liberal value, applies unevenly it seems in this case; it protects those who seek to criticise the burqa but not those who wear it.
“Perhaps more worryingly, Boris’ comments echo far-right, populist sentiments that have underpinned the burqa bans throughout Europe (notably, his column argues against such bans). In France, the public debates surrounding the burqa - similar debates to those happening in the UK today - were recognised by the European Court of Human Rights to have alienated and marginalised the Muslim community, including those who did not support the wearing of the burqa.
"Burqa bans have resulted in increased verbal and violent hate crimes against Muslim women wearing both the burqa and the hijab. And research has shown that instead of ’freeing’ Muslim women, burqa bans mean that women no longer leave their homes. Rather than increasing ’integration’, burqa bans and the negative discourse that surrounds them have a marginalising impact on entire communities.
“The comments made by Boris Johnson and the subsequent discourse in the media legitimise Islamophobic sentiment at a time when hate crimes against Muslims, particularly Muslim women, are on the increase in the UK. Rather than upholding liberal values, this type of debate disenfranchises, marginalises and excludes the very women it purports to protect.
“Let me be clear: this is how it starts. History has shown us time and again that the slide towards intolerance, prejudice and abuse starts just like this, with insidious rhetoric. People slowly become immunised against discrimination until it becomes unremarkable and accepted. Boris Johnson has deployed his words dangerously when he, as a politician, has a duty to calm tensions and not to inflame them."
Dr Stephanie Berry is a Senior Lecturer in International Human Rights Law at the University of Sussex. She researches and writes in the field of freedom of religion and minority rights, with a particular focus on the rights of Muslims in Western Europe., she acted as a legal advisor for the applicant in the European Court of Human Rights case, SAS v France, challenging the legality of the French ’burqa ban’. Dr Berry has also advised non-governmental organisations and international organisations in her fields of expertise.
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By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Friday, 10 August 2018