Christa Ackroyd: Why I defend women's right to wear the burqa

Today I feel sad. Sad for my friend, sad for women, and sad for my country. And cross at myself.

Last week I chose deliberately to ignore the rabid comments of Boris Johnson, who if we are talking about appearances could do with combing his hair and taking a long hard look in the mirror at himself. I wrongly presumed his column in another newspaper would be seen for what it was, a desperate attempt to reclaim the power he has lost whatever the consequences, a cheap shot attacking a small minority in a minority, because of how they look. The best response, I believed, was to maintain a dignified silence and not fuel the publicity he craves. I was wrong.

Poll after poll showed the majority demanded the burqa, or burka, be banned in this country. People took to social media to vent their spleen, as he knew they would and there he was, back from the back benches making or rather manipulating the news. Good Old Boris standing up for what be believes in. Only he doesn’t. If you read the small print he is against a ban, which incidentally in France represented less than 0.003 per cent of the population. The figures are so small they are not even collated here. No matter, why let the facts get in the way of a good bandwagon. Oh and by the way the burka does not have a “ letter box “ for eyes as he so disparagingly referred to it. It’s a full face covering. And I suspect the garb of choice for every well dressed “bank robber” as he described the look, still remains a balaclava, crash helmet or hoodie so let’s ban those as well shall we ?

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No matter, Boris Johnson is delighted to be back in the news. That’s why he took tea out to reporters waiting outside his house, as the debate raged a week later. Thanks a million guys and girls, look how important I am.

The only person who is important to Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson. He would, has and will, change his opinions like the wind if it get’s him where he wants to be, ( dare I mention Brexit) . Out from the wilderness steps runaway Nigel Farage, his unofficial agent, saying there you are, a Prime Minister in waiting. Well I don’t want my politicians to open their mouths whatever the consequences. Isn’t that why hundreds of thousands took to the streets to march against Trump ?

And that is why I was wrong to ignore Boris and his ramblings. Because for my eloquent, strong, delightful, friend it was a step too far. Never have I seen her bowed. Never has she appeared momentarily defeated. More importantly never have I heard her question her value in the eyes of other women because of her beliefs. And I need to tell her she is wrong. And urge all other women to do the same. Look we fought recent wars ostensibly to give women the freedom of choice. Why are we not prepared to fight to afford the same rights for women who live among us.

My friend is an intelligent, caring, articulate woman. She also follows the faith of Islam, which makes her a Muslim. But she is not a Muslim woman. I am, I hope an intelligent, caring, articulate woman who follows the faith of Christianity. But that does not make me a Christian woman, though unlike the tag of Muslim woman that would be seen as a positive description in the eyes of many. Together we are women, free thinking women of different religions and that’s been hard fought for by both of us.

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Being a columnist is a privilege afforded to very few. But with it comes responsibility. Never have I pandered to the masses, to prejudices, to fear. Always in my role as a writer or reporter I have considered deeply how my words will affect those who read or heard them. My role as a female columnist is to raise women up, not put them down. It is to share common themes, not single out those who do not conform to my views or the views of the majority. We all conform in some way. So my friend wore traditional dress to her wedding. My daughter wore traditional dress to hers, including guess what, a veil. No protests outside the church at that symbol of female chastity. Nuns wear a habit out of respect for their religion, a symbol of religious servitude. Some people wear crosses to demonstrate theirs . Neither is mandatory in the bible as the burqa isn’t mandatory in the Quran. No difference. It’s about choice.

And before you start saying women are forced to wear the burka, I have not heard one this week who said she wore it because it was expected of her by a man. Though I have heard plenty who say they chose to because they want to. And if there are some who feel pressured, and I don’t know any who are, how will this debate empower them. It won’t.

But this isn’t an argument about a piece of clothing. It’s the same old row about how women should look, what’s appropriate. For decades I have sat beside men in mismatched suit and tie yet no one said a word to them. But everyone had opinions about what I wore. My friend, also in the media was once complimented on how well she wore the dress of her culture. It was a dress from Karen Millen not Bombay stores. But it was presumed otherwise.

We both grew up in multi cultural Bradford where it was a joy to ask questions of each other because we wanted to know the answers not because we were told what the answer should be. How different would this week’s debate have been if the polls had asked not should the burqa be banned, but should women have the choice to wear what they want?

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Let’s not shroud this argument in the cloak of anti terrorism. Good, thinking people of all religions are against terrorism. And why pick on women ? Most terrorists are men . So why demonise a handful of women or hijack religious beliefs to the point where it criminalises one faith to the detriment of all who follow it.

Let all women work together for the common bond of sisterhood, where a woman , no matter what she wears, no matter how she looks, whatever the colour of her skin or the religion she follows, feels empowered to progress towards that utopia of equality. Because we are all a long way from that.

I feel for my friend who incidentally does not wear the burqa, niqab or even the hijab. But if she did what’s it to do with you or I? I would fight for her right to decide for herself. I will not judge any woman and nor should you unless you walk in her shoes. My friend is strong . She will continue to make her own way and make a difference whatever she wears, whatever her religion, because she is a good woman who often chooses to walk a difficult path. I write this because I want her to know I will always walk with her. And any other woman who feels bullied into making choices she does not feel comfortable with because it makes others feel more comfortable about themselves.