The United Kingdom’s new culture secretary has been accused of Islamophobia over her views on Muslim women and description of the burqa as a “medieval” dress code.
Nadine Dorries, 64, was appointed to the senior government role this week as part of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle.
Like Johnson, she has a history of making controversial statements on a range of issues. In 2018, when Johnson – then an MP – wrote in a now-infamous newspaper column that the burqa is “oppressive” and the women wearing it looked like “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, Dorries called for a ban on the full-face veil.
“I’m very disappointed in Boris that he did not go further and actually use that newspaper article to call for a complete outright ban on a dress code – a medieval dress code – which was designed to cover up women’s beauty and their bruises,” she told Sky News, suggesting the garment was used to hide scars of domestic abuse.
“Women should be allowed to choose what they wear, and many of these women are not allowed to choose. As I have said, they are not even allowed to choose who they marry.
“Many of them aren’t even allowed to keep their genitals,” she added, referring to female genital mutilation (FGM), an outlawed practice in the UK. FGM predates Islam and Christianity, but is carried out by a minority of adherents to several faiths.
Around the same time, Dorries shared her views online, tweeting: “You cannot expect a society that celebrates gay pride and embraces gay marriage to live harmoniously when condoning the suppression of women forced to cover up, segregate and become invisible.”
When challenged by Twitter user Aleesha Khaliq, Dorries referred to Muslim women who wear the burqa in Britain, saying: “They are segregated and suppressed. It’s a medieval costume with no place in today’s liberal society. No progressive country should tolerate it.”
Of the about three million Muslims in Britain, it is widely understood very few women wear the full-face veil, though there are no official statistics.
But the garment, which is banned elsewhere in Europe, occasionally captures the national attention, when politicians or public figures comment on it.
Khaliq, a journalist, told Al Jazeera that Dorries’s remarks were “really disappointing” yet unsurprising.
“We have Boris Johnson who has made Islamophobic comments and now Dorries [as culture secretary],” she said. “We’ve been legitimising Islamophobia from top down for so long that it’s now normal.
“It’s dangerous because she was actively advocating to ban the burqa. It’s worrying that a senior government figure can dictate what a minority of women choose to wear. Is she going to bring it up again?”
At the time of publishing, Dorries had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Fatima Rajina, a research fellow at De Montfort University’s Stephen Lawrence Research Centre, said her statements were “befitting of the culture within the Conservative party and Boris Johnson, who has made similar derogatory and Islamophobic remarks describing Muslim women”.
She told Al Jazeera: “The very idea of a liberal society is premised on choice yet when Muslim women actively choose to wear clothing that aligns with their religious expressions, this choice is suddenly framed within the ‘modern’ vs ‘medieval’ binary. These concocted culture wars rely on Muslims and other racialised people to stir up relevance by politicians who otherwise appear to be incompetent.”
Dorries has a record of participating in divisive debates.
In 2013, she voted against gay marriage, a move she later called her “biggest regret” as an MP. She has proposed to strip abortion providers of their counselling role, argued for the abortion time limit to be reduced and strongly supported Brexit. She has railed against “left-wing” journalists and the BBC.
In 2017, she tweeted: “Left wing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities, dumbing down panto, removing Christ from Christmas and suppressing free speech. Sadly, it must be true, history does repeat itself. It will be music next.”
A spokesperson for the UK’s Runnymede Trust race equality think-tank told Al Jazeera that Dorries’s appointment carries weight, “given comments made by the new minister in the past regarding the burqa. We regret the lack of dialogue in addressing such comments, as we do with other similar instances from British politicians across the political spectrum.”
“It is important for politicians across the political spectrum to demonstrate their commitment to racial equality. We hope the new minister of culture will address the comments previously made, and take steps to celebrate the diversity we are very fortunate to have in Britain.”