Boris And The Burkha: Can We No Longer Comment on People’s Choice Of Dress?

Last Monday I read Boris Johnson’s comment piece in the Daily Telegraph, now called the Boris and the Burkha row, and I thought it was a very fair article. He was questioning why Denmark, a very tolerant country, had joined other European countries in banning the wearing of the burkha in their country. At the end of the article Boris made the letter box and bank robber remarks and so the Boris and the Burkha row erupted, in my opinion, on a quite ridiculous scale. I personally saw it as humorous remark however – as ever – it has been used against him. This has all been a gift to Labour as it knocked the anti-semitism row off the front pages as the Conservative party tore themselves apart over this totally over-exaggerated controversy. Theresa May further fanned the flames and shot herself in the foot by suggesting a party investigation into Boris following the request by Brandon Lewis, Chairman of the Conservative party, for Boris to apologise for his remarks.

Boris And The Burkha

What do I have to say about this Boris and the Burkha row without igniting the wrath of our own readers? Personally I did not see this article as a racist attack on a minority ethnic group. Criticising the niqab and criticising Muslim women are two very different things. Boris, as a northern European man, was questioning why anyone would want to wear the niqab and therefore look as they do.

Boris And The Burkha

Thankfully we live in a country where there is freedom of speech and freedom of dress. We are hopefully taught by our elders to dress respectfully when entering a church or when attending a formal occasion. I sometimes look at the clothes my daughters wear and think why would they want to wear that outfit? Occasionally I might say something which is normally ignored however as they grew older they have come to accept that there is a code of dress for certain situations. Can I not suggest to my best friend that I think she would look better in a one-piece swimming costume rather than a bikini? At the end of the day it is her choice and my opinion which may not be one and the same.

My eldest daughter worked and lived in Qatar for a year where there is a strict dress code even for non-Qataris. She had to observe it and so she did. Once, when she was walking outside, she pushed her sleeves halfway up her arm, without thinking, and someone spat at her for revealing a few inches of skin. When she returned to the UK she admitted that she could not have lived in Qatar any longer because of their very restrictive lifestyle.

Boris And The Burkha
Baitul Futuh Mosque, Morden, London

Presumably when Muslim families chose to live in the UK they realised they were coming here for the lifestyle that the UK has to offer. Perhaps a freedom that they no longer enjoyed in their country of birth. A freedom of religion, economic stability, and safety from wars and persecution that life in the UK provides. The UK allows Moslems to build their places of worship, something that most Muslim countries do not allow non-Islamic religions to do. I understand that the Muslim religion does dictate modesty, but there is no basis for the niqab in Islam.

I do not want our country to change so much that we cannot say what we think. It must always be respectful and not racist or defamatory as has been the case with the Labour Party and anti-semitism. My husband is Jewish and yet it is me that is far more incensed than he at anti-Semitic remarks. He has come to expect it because he was born at the end of the war and he learnt early on that anti-semitism comes out of ignorance and there will always be those people in the world. However he works hard to make sure that anti-semitism is never again allowed to grow into a movement such as the Holocaust.

I cannot understand how racism exists amongst so-called liberal thinking people but Boris Johnson is not one of those racists. He may have his faults as a politician but this is not one of them. He may be a controversialist and he may use his remarks to seek attention. This week I am sure many people have had a quick read of Boris Johnson’s comment piece in the Daily Telegraph in case he has started another Boris and the Burkha row. This time he has named and shamed a property company for building sub-standard houses and charging exorbitant prices yet failing to repair the construction faults. He has drawn attention not to himself but to a genuine problem. If someone like Boris has the sort of power that he clearly does have, where people do read his articles then he needs to use that power to help those who do not have his strength and connections. Others, Labour or Conservative, should not use his words in political or social point-scoring. He worries many Tories as he could be a threat to Theresa May and he is an easy target for Labour. He is not a villain however he may be plain-speaking in his articles which is not a crime. We do not need to share or understand his opinions but he does not need to be punished for stating these opinions.

I hope that we at The CountryWives can continue to suggest what we think women should wear at our age to make them look the best they can. However, at the end of the day, everyone can and will wear what they want, and people can and will say what they think –  these are the joys of living in a free country. Boris and the Burkha row is, in my opinion, a storm in a teacup and there are bigger race issues that need to be addressed in this country right now.

More Poppy Patmore comment pieces here


  1. Thank you Poppy for your common-sense and balanced comment on Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article.
    I truly hope he stands his ground on this one.

    • Despite Boris’ clumsy way of describing burkhas, I think that he has made people think about how they look to the observer rather than just why women wear them (and most people know that there are lots of religious and cultural reasons, whether you agree with them or not).

      My point, though, is just to observe that, personally, I find it quite unsettling to look at or speak to a person whose face I cannot see. So much of human communication is through body language. You cannot see someone smiling through a burkha. The burkha wearing woman’s only form of non verbal facial communication is through her eyes. How can one know how she is feeling, reacting etc?

      Also, I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same, but burkhas in bright colours or designs would not look nearly so sinister, even if they still totally covered the woman. In some cultures women cover up their heads and faces in coloured fabrics and it doesn’t provoke the same feelings in the onlooker. Black is the colour of nothing. It is supposed to make the wearer invisible.

      These are probably trivial observations but I think they may help to explain why we have strong feelings about how women in burkhas look. In this country we have the freedom to wear what we like, thank goodness. If women want to wear burkhas, fine, but we should be allowed to express our feelings about them in the same way we might laugh at someone wearing a ridiculous hat or other piece of clothing. It’s just human nature to do this. If the PC brigade shut down all comments in case someone is offended, how can we have proper debate about things that really matter? Debate is healthy, censoring is not.

  2. I completely agree with every word written in this article.
    People are becoming so judgemental about everything. I am too smart. She is too fat. He is too stupid.They have ghastly taste. Let people be.
    Boris can write what he likes! I can write what I like! That’s the whole point! We are able to say what we want , so we do. We will and we shall.
    Thank goodness for free speech and living in England, where hopefully we won’t be clapped in irons and thrown in the tower for voicing our opinion ( not now anyway)

  3. I could not agree more with Poppy Patmore’s article on Boris and the Burkha. However, I begin to wonder whether we really do have free speech any more. It seems that almost every day somebody is accused of racism, sexism etc. simply by voicing an opinion. I want to say how offensive I find really obese people walking about in public in the most inappropriate clothes. i.e. skin tight crop tops, brief shorts or leggings with mounds of fat exposed. Not sure what term could be used for that? Obesism? Would I be charged with that if I made a comment in public? I am a reasonable minded, fashionable(I like to think so), active 80 year old, and I hate the way the PC brigade are hijacking our country.
    Keep the wonderful articles coming girls, you do a great job. Love CW arriving in my inbox.

  4. Beautifully and intelligently written Poppy. I am one of those people who usually says ‘ah well each to their own, it’s their choice’ but and it is a big but from me, I do find the Burka, Niqab, full veil etc very intimidating. The other week in good old M&S in little old Wales, standing next to me
    In complete black with just slits showing their eyes and both people were very tall indeed, about 6ft and me a petite 5ft 2ins felt very intimidated by these two human beings. OK they were minding their own business but were they male or female? They gave me the creeps!
    We are a tolerant U.K. and these people take advantage, can you imagine if us British spat on every Burka clad person, gee whiz there would be anarchy on the streets. I was appalled that your daughter was spat at for her clearly innocently pushing up of her sleeve in Qatar.
    Boris sees it as it is, and is not afraid to speak out, I don’t dislike the man at all and he is very humoures and intelligent but a leader of our country no,he is to much of a Cavalier and we don’t need another gun ho so to speak like Trump with blonde crazy hair styles both of them!

    On complete change of subject Poppy one day it would be a interesting to talk about full face and body tattoos in this country, their choice but when a phlebotomist in our excellent GP surgery has had both her forearms covered in tattoos and she is wait for it 60yrs old I find this intimidating and totally unprofessional. I am a retired Qualified nurse with 40yrs experiences and not once in that time did I ever see a NHS employee ,doctor,nurse, Porter, Cleaner etc having a tattoo. So I am very surprised my GPs has allowed this, hen she performs an invasive procedure of taking blood. To risky in my opinion.
    As always I enjoy your mid week articles.
    Pamela from Wales x

  5. Excellent, considered article. Well done, I totally agree with your views and thoughts. How nice to read a voice of reason for a change.

  6. I agree with every word you say. Very sensible and fair assessment.
    I do not like the look of burkas nor any kind of veils – it just does not go in our Christian society and looks ridiculous, old fashioned und simply unnecessary. It is mainly men who will need to change their strict, oppressed views on women.

  7. What an excellent, thoughtful article. I will tell you people now, the lefties in Australia treat anyone who dares to make any comment such as Boris did, the subject of extreme vilification and total trashing of reputation – please go ahead and google any one of our brave commentators who do dare (such as Andrew Bolt). He is a wonderful journalist who has been made to suffer. I take a keen interest in British politics and am behind Boris 100%. Boris for PM, I say.

  8. Write on Poppy! It’s difficult to believe that anyone could really be outraged by Boris’ (in my view rather lame) jibes about the hijabs (letter boxes/bank robbers) that appeared towards the end of an article that actually supports women’s rights to wear them. Good on you for being brave enough to tackle this contentious subject in such a thoughtful way. More like this please….

  9. In my opinion you have completely missed the point of people’s displeasure with Boris’s comments. Yes he is entitled to comment on people’s dress. What he is not entitled to do is be rude or disrespectful. His language about the burkha resembling a letter box was that of school children in the playground rather than a well-reasoned argument by a supposedly intelligent adult. I think that by comparing his comments to those one might make to one’s child about their choice of outfit is, at the very least, far-fetched unless one is in the habit of making crass and disparaging comments to one’s children. Further more, what about challenging your readers to reflect on why many women choose to wear the burkha (not all women do so from pressure from men) or at the very least reflect on to consider the argument from the religious perspective. Come on ladies, if you want to comment on a fairly hot political comment, please write something a bit more challenging than what appeared to be the very predictable response of white middle class Tory voters.

    • Well said, Claire. This is a complex issue and there is more to it than the surface meaning of Boris’ comments- his political ambitions for one thing.

    • Do you know, I’m feeling too busy to respond to this, and yet I’m trawling down the comments as I hope to find someone who has more insight into the complex and inflamatory nature of a senior politicians comments. Boris could have thought more before giving, yet again, his provocative viewpoint in an increasingly sensitive multiracial country.
      Free speech is available to us, unlike in many parts of the world, but should be tempered with some understanding of it’s effects.

  10. I think the number of responses here indicates the strength of feeling among the silent majority both about the burka and the creeping suppression of free speech. It may well be a turning point when the silent majority finally demands to be listened to and refuses to be silent when reproached by virtue-signallers. Let’s hope so.

    Boris’s comment provoked a totally disproportionate response. Compare it with the silence that greeted the ferocious denunciation of the burka by right-on Polly Toynbee, expressed in infinitely more hostile and denunciatory language than that used by Boris. Paul Merton made a joke about the burka that was much ruder and far funnier than Boris’s. Not a peep from anyone.

    But the point is, surely, that all have the right to use any language they like short of inciting violence. As Orwell said, roughly, ‘Free speech means sometimes hearing what you don’t want to hear.’ If you place restrictions on free speech, you have to have Custodians of What Is Offensive’. Imagine that! Panels of people arguing over jokes and prescribing punishments; witnesses lining up to declare the degree of offence taken; penitents confessing their wrongdoing; self-censoring when in doubt. Inhibiting free speech is not only nonsensical, it is the enemy of truth. If someone says something you don’t like, answer them, challenge them, prove them wrong. Then truth and liberty will flourish.

  11. Thank you Poppy for your article and here’s another predictable response from a white, middle class woman in her seventies who is uncomfortable in the vicinity of people who cover their face. Yes BJ’s remarks were childish and rude. I consider labelling any people in a derogatory way, which I believe was the intention of the above is also rude.

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