A Scout leader in Britain has been fired after expressing safety concerns about canoeing while wearing a burqa. He referred to the Islamic modesty clothing as a “Darth Vader tent,” referencing the Star Wars villain.
Sixty-three-year-old Brian Walker, an assistant Explorer Scout leader, sent an email complaint to Scouting magazine after the magazine ran a picture of a woman identified only as Zainab, completely covered in a veil. Her face was covered by a niqab (face veil), and the rest of her body covered by a multi-piece burqa (body veil). Even her hands remained invisible beneath black gloves.
“In her full Islamic veil, Zainab cuts a striking figure when she takes the girls out canoeing, or goes hiking through the Yorkshire hills,” the Spring 2017 issue of the magazine reported. “‘I am who I am, with or without the veil,’ she says firmly – and has a strong message for anyone who may hold preconceptions or negative stereotypes about the way she chooses to dress. ‘It’s not a barrier; it doesn’t stop me from doing anything,’ she says. ‘I’m bossy. Nobody can say I’m repressed.’”
Repressed or not, Zainab would find safe canoeing difficult in her burqa, Walker pointed out.
“Canoeists don’t dress like this; they need all-round unobstructed vision so they protect the group,” the scout leader said in his email. He concluded by warning, “They will most likely drown wearing that Darth Vader tent!”
In the email, Walker reportedly added that Zainab’s “outward appearance is enough to frighten children and animals.”
Britain’s The Times reported that the Scout leader was expelled last March “on the grounds that he had breached the movement’s values of integrity, respect, care and co-operation and could bring the Scouts into disrepute.”
Walker, a veteran who served in the armed forces for 12 years (and the special forces SAS arm for six months), said he would not have a problem working in a Scout group with Muslim or LGBT children. He insisted that, as the father of a grown-up child with Asperger’s and another with cerebral palsy, he firmly supported inclusivity.
After Walker’s expulsion was reviewed by UK Chief Commissioner Tim Kidd, the fired Scout leader insisted he did not want to offend anyone. He did argue that “Scouting should stick to its Christian traditions,” however.
Last week, he sued the Scout Association for breach of contract and hurt feelings.
The Scout Association said it could not comment on the legal case but insisted, “Inclusivity is at the heart of modern scouting and is a value we hold dear.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, is defending Walker. “Scouting used to be about doing our best, doing our duty to God, serving the Queen, helping others and keeping the cub scout law,” Williams said. “It would seem the culture this created has … been infiltrated by the new political dogma that cannot stand any whiff of dissent.”
The association has not responded by insisting that canoeing while in a full hijab is actually safe, which was the central complaint Walker addressed.
Muslim modesty clothing may or may not represent women’s oppression — Zainab insisted that it did not, in her case. However, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that canoeing in a full burqa would be dangerous and to request that Scouting magazine not encourage such a practice.
Had Walker restricted his complaint to that, he may not have been fired. Even the Darth Vader quip seems more joking than anything else. Perhaps the suggestion that Zainab’s clothing was inherently “frightening” might be construed as insensitive, but it might be true in some cases.
In any case, a Scout worker should not be fired for something sent in a private email complaint, however offensive his message. Had this been a public statement, some retaliation might have been justified. As it stands, the association’s firing of Walker does seem an inappropriate overreach in attempting to enforce group-think, rather than just encouraging tolerance.