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It’s time to listen to the women that the burka row affects – like me

No one – especially not Boris Johnson – has the right to dictate what I wear, says Nadera Sarah Al-Bustani from Oxfordshire

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By Nadera Sarah Al-Bustani on

Every time a public figure reignites the debate over Islamic dress, I wish that I had my response recorded so I could play the answer to anyone who asks: it’s my choice what I wear, it would say; there is no one dictating my wardrobe. For the overwhelming majority, Islam is a peaceful, inclusive religion.

Since Boris Johnson compared women wearing burkas and niqabs to “letter boxes” or “bank robbers” in a Telegraph column, there has been loud public debate. It’s mostly been over whether the comments were offensive – they were, in my book – and if Johnson should be reprimanded. But what is frustrating is that these lazy “jokes”, on a topic he knows nothing about, rehash the narrative that Muslim women are forced to wear certain dress and that those clothes are a sign of oppression. Women like me, all over the country, and our families have to deal with the fallout.

I wear a hijab, a headscarf that covers my hair, neck and cleavage, and then I wear jeans like any other mum on the school run. I choose not to wear the abaya (a robe-like dress worn by some Muslims). Nor do I wear the burka and niqab, which cover more of the body and face. Growing up, I used to pray and fast, neither of which are a requirement until girls hit puberty. I follow the common interpretation of Islamic teaching that you should only wear the headscarf when you feel ready. Some women will choose never to do so. My mum started wearing one in her late thirties, but she put no pressure on me.

I want people to know that I am proud to be a Muslim woman, one who, like any of us, whatever we believe, wouldn’t let anyone control how we get dressed in the morning

I starting wearing the hijab when I was 20. I was living in London and I was hesitant, as Islamophobia was common, but I got such a positive response. I felt so good that I was identifiably Muslim and was comfortable answering any questions that came my way. I want my two girls to make their own choices and be a good role model for them. There’s a stereotype that Muslim women are sitting at home, cooking and cleaning. In reality, we are strong, independent women who can do everything that men and non-religious women can do.

It feels like our message is falling on deaf ears. I was approached this week by a street preacher, holding a bible, while I was out shopping in Oxford. He said that for my own safety I should take off the hijab. What right does anyone have to dictate what I wear? He wasn’t willing to have an open discussion and became increasingly aggressive. I’m not saying Johnson’s piece shouldn’t have been published – I believe in freedom of expression – but, as a politician who represents a section of British society, he should be held to account. He and others wading in need to understand the impact of their words and get out and talk to Muslim communities.

In my kids’ primary school, there is only one other Muslim child. My six-year-old son was told, “You’re not welcome here,” by a classmate. My son asked: “Is it because I’m Muslim?” Another child said to my five-year-old that she didn’t want to play with him because he was “brown”. It was the first time he had thought he was in any way “different”. The school handled it brilliantly, but we decided to try and help the kids understand that diversity is something to be celebrated. My husband and I did an assembly answering basic questions about Islam. Lots of parents came up to me afterwards to ask more, so it made a positive out of a negative situation.

I suspect Johnson wrote what he did to try to further his political career. It remains to be seen whether it will have the opposite effect. I don't know whether kicking him out the party would do any good – it could pander to extremists. For me, it’s depressing that his weren’t off-the-cuff remarks. His column was actually arguing against banning the burka; those comments were written for laughs. At the moment, it feels like we’re going round in circles. Politicians should ignite the debate in a responsible way. Get out on a podium, get people from all sides and discuss it properly.

I realise that there is a certain irony. If I didn’t wear the hijab, I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to things I have been, but for me it is integral to my faith. I want people to know that I am proud to be a Muslim woman, one who, like any of us, whatever we believe, wouldn’t let anyone control how we get dressed in the morning.

Nadera Sarah Al-Bustani is 31 and lives in rural Oxfordshire with her husband and four young children. She was talking to Sally Newall

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