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As a general non-believer, I often find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending the burqa. Do I think the fact that is often thought to be required by Islam reek of misogyny? Of course, the same way I think prohibitions on birth control in Christian denominations is misogynist. That doesn’t mean that people don’t have the right to be spectacularly wrong, and if it’s a free choice, more power to you. But all major, organized religions have significant woman problems, and I think that if you’re going to adhere to those beliefs, you should have to accept a certain amount of ridicule and mockery.

Evidently, the Top Gear guys feel the same way.

On the Boxing Day episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May drove across the Middle East in an attempt to follow the path of the Biblical Wise Men. In doing so, Jeremy and Hamster dressed up in niqabs.

I have not seen the episode (yet), but it has sparked the predictable outrage. The niqab symbolic of Islam and shouldn’t be made fun of, says one “Islamic extremist,” quoted in the Perth Now article linked above.

I find myself torn about how to react. Religion, which by definition defies logic and rationality, should always be mocked. There is no excuse for many beliefs espoused by religious dogma in the 21st century.

On that level, I completely support the prank. I mean, men in burqas! Why should they have to cover up their bodies? It’s women who are responsible for male lust and behavior. It’s a crude, yet unmistakable, jab at a practice that, when forced on a woman, has no place in modern society.

But then again, I’m familiar with Clarkson’s. He discusses women in a way that has much to be desired (although, I suspect the more egregious examples are overreactions to requests that he be a little less sexist.) He’s entered the burqa debate before, and not in the most diplomatic way. And I suspect that he wouldn’t make such a stink if this was an oppressive practice that still allowed men to leer.

And it’s undeniable that at least some Muslim women voluntarily wear a veil, burqa or niqab. Just like some women don’t use birth control. And that is their right. I don’t understand it, but it’s their right. The prank disrespects the free choice of millions of women across the world.

The whole situation is especially disturbing given the burqa bans and general intolerance of Muslims that was gaining steam across Europe. I have always been against these bans, not only because the choice to wear headscarves and burqas is often a free choice. I mostly oppose the bans for the women for whom it is not a choice, and the inevitable result of making Muslim women more isolated than before. If proliferating liberal ideas of human rights and equality is the goal, the last thing we should make a woman’s rights contingent on what she wears. Knowing all of this, I can’t help but find the Top Gear burqa stunt a little disconcerting.

So I’m left wondering, is this legitimate social commentary or just another sexist prank? Maybe it’s both.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons