Whatever his motives, Boris Johnson’s remarks about Islamic dress have drawn attention to an area of extreme tension: the Muslim practice of sexual apartheid. While the Left in the UK, and bizarrely Mrs May’s government, are trying to abolish binary gender recognition in favour of saying there are several valid sexes, the Muslim community recognises only one gender as the norm: the male. The female is just an adjunct. Women who are demanding punishment for Boris claim that they are free as men to choose what they wear. That may be, but they are a small percentage of this country’s 2.8million Muslims, and less than one hundredth of the world’s 1.6billion. In the UK they have the freedom to choose to disappear from view and walk around with their heads in bags if they wish, but when they say they do it ‘to be closer to God,’ they are being as disingenuous as any politician. Boris may be ready to sacrifice his political party to get into power, but they are willing to ignore the plight of millions of women who have no voice and no choice.
Until three years ago I lived in Acton Vale, or Acton Veil as some called it, in West London. Over fifteen years it changed from a white working-class area into part of the Islamic strip stretching from Shepherd’s Bush to Southall. Living there I didn’t see many women wearing the niqab or burka because I didn’t see many Muslim women at all. A great many Somalis arrived and were put into a housing development. The young men of that community began getting into gangs. I met them close up when I began teaching in nearby Wormwood Scrubs prison; very sweet they were to me in my role as prison teacher, but out on the streets I rarely saw their mothers or sisters. I once did see a very young Somali woman sitting on a bench in the middle of the estate where I cut through to get to leafy Chiswick. She looked distraught. I went back to see if I could talk to her but she’d gone.
All our food outlets quickly became Halal. I stopped using them but still went to the grocer’s. I rarely saw a Muslim woman in there, except occasionally in groups, usually on a Friday evening, after prayers. I found myself in an area of migrant men and my sense of living in a community melted away. The shops were run by young Muslim men who manned the tills whilst talking loudly into their mobiles. They would not look at me, or spend even a moment to chat. It seemed that the gulf between us could never be crossed by normal conversation.
I decided to move, not just because of the strangeness of living among people who made me feel invisible, but even the buildings were changing. On my way to work I had to pass the King Fahad Academy, funded by Saudi Arabia. As much a fortress as a school, it seemed to taint the whole area with an atmosphere of entrenched hostility. Paranoia and fear stalked the pavement. Ten years ago, the school was forced to shred 2,000 textbooks after being accused by Ofsted of ‘teaching hate’. The 1,250 pupils at the school, the sexes educated separately, the girls all covered from head to foot, included children of jailed cleric Abu Hamza and of Abu Qatada, who was Bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe. Last year’s report says the school still ‘requires improvement’.
Across the road from the school stood a row of large Saudi-owned houses. The detached 1950s properties, the type once embellished with pebbledash, were now adorned by security cameras and massive satellite dishes. What bothered me most was that they were fenestrated by burka glass: large grey windows without curtains through which those inside, I suspect mainly women, could look out but no one could see in.
I left Acton with its immured, invisible women, for a more pleasant place. In Oxford there are three mosques, one costing £60million to build, but Muslims are not the majority and I still see women of all kinds moving freely in the streets. There are elements which bring back memories of Acton Vale.The last time I used a Muslim greengrocer, I stood waiting to be served but when it came to my turn the youth behind the counter served a man standing directly behind me as if I were not there. Again, I was invisible. When I complained he looked at me with utter contempt.
In the Islamic communities where I’ve lived, women outside on the street and in shops just do not exist, or if they are there and in western costume they are not worthy of basic respect. By donning the burka when it is not required, Muslim activists are wrapping themselves in the green flag of Islam and running it up a pole for all to see. It’s an exciting game, declaring allegiance to political Islam rather than the pluralistic values of the West. But it’s a sad and dangerous game for them to play, for if by some chance their agenda were to win and Britain became part of the caliphate they desire, they and all women would be the losers.