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Last week, Boris Johnson caused a ruckus by likening Muslim, burqa-wearing women to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. In the furore that ensued, debates over whether the burqa is compatible with ‘British’ values – and, ultimately, whether the UK should follow France and Denmark’s footsteps by banning the garment altogether – caught the public’s attention.

The many calls for Boris to apologise were met with defence of his right to freedom of expression, and right to ridicule.

It’s not surprising this story caused such an uproar: Britain loves to argue about free speech and religious expression. But what’s really going on here?

In order to dissect this story, it’s necessary to start at the heart of the issue – the burqa itself – and work our way carefully from there. The item in question is a black, loose, clothing garment which is used to entirely cover the face, eyes and body. Notice how I made no reference to Muslims or Islam? That’s because the burqa is not Islamic at all. In no place is it mentioned in the Qur’an, the final word on all Muslim matters, and, interestingly, it is actually banned in the Kabah, the holy mosque in Mecca.

The common misapprehension that the burqa is inextricably tied to Islam comes from an extreme interpretation of one of the verses in the Qur’an, which talks about modest dress code and behavioural conduct. This passage has been misconstrued by a small but powerful group of radicals known as wahhabis.

Having lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years myself, I am no stranger to the widespread wahhabi customs. These include mandatory wearing of the abaya (a black cloak to go over your clothes) for women, and shops being obliged to shut during prayer times. Growing up, I would often see women wearing the burqa and thought of it as type of Saudi traditional dress. But interestingly, although the burqas origins are unknown, it is believed that it was first adopted in Persia, and was first worn in a non-Muslim society. Once Islam spread across Asia, the practice of wearing the garment was not dropped, because it conveniently complied with modest dress requirements; crucially, though it was never a necessity. In fact, it was only the extreme wahhabist views which led to the Islamification of the burqa as a symbol of Muslim culture.

Unfortunately, because the two holiest sites are located in the country, there is a perception that Saudi Arabia has some form of global authority in setting an example for Islam, meaning followers around the world looking to it for guidance and approval. In other words, due to the high numbers of women wearing the burqa in Saudi Arabia, Muslims in all countries often feel that this is the standard they have to aspire to.

Now that there is a little more context to this story, we can return to the moment when I initially heard about Boris’ comments. The first thing I felt was a deep sense of disappointment. As if the statistics weren’t enough to prove that being a Muslim is challenging on a day-to-day basis, it was instantly clear that Boris’ insults would serve as the spark to ignite further Islamophobic sentiment. Put simply, he should have just known better, especially given that religion is not having a good moment in politics as of late. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are cropping up across the political spectrum, and for this reason we need to be sensitive.

Having said that though, there is a fine line between being respectful and censorship. Although I was upset by what Boris said and condemn his use of language, I strongly believe and uphold the right to freedom of expression. This means not attacking a person for expressing themselves if you disagree with what they say, but rather, criticising what they have said and holding them to account for it.

What I was more disturbed by was the reactions of some which suggested that the UK has a ‘burqa problem’. In order to understand just how insignificant and misleading this rhetoric is, we need to cast our gaze across the Channel to France. A survey conducted by the French Government prior to the burqa ban in 2011, found that there were officially 1,900 women that wore burqas, but this is likely to be over inflated as the original investigation found there to be only 367 women.  Shockingly, the French Government requested a recount of the data as it was deemed to be too low. Even with the exaggerated figure, the number of burqa wearers represent a meagre 0.04% of the French Muslim population, and less than 0.003% of the general population of France.

Although there are no official figures for the number of burqa wearing women in the UK, they aren’t likely to differ dramatically from that of France. With issues such as health, education and transport affecting nearly all individuals, it seems bizarre – and irresponsible – to start quibbling about the burqa, which – ultimately – affects so few.

Personally, this whole episode is a reminder of the persistent problem of social integration in the UK. On paper, we are more multicultural than ever, but at the same time we are also experiencing increasing cultural distance and a reluctance to embrace difference. Not only is this having an impact on minority groups, but the effects are also playing out on the political stage, in schools, public services and the media.

Part of the problem is the deep-rooted, unresolved injustices which exacerbate tensions between communities. With an uncertain future landscape, now more than ever should it be a priority for the government to acknowledge and tackle these inequalities. Only then will there be “a Britain that works for everyone”.

Saher Murtaza is a student at King’s College London who lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for 10 years. She is undertaking work experience at Bright Blue through upReach. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.