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23 October 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:49am

How it feels to be branded a “letterbox” in the street because of Boris Johnson

The Welsh geneticist, Sahar Al-Faifi, on why she’s left cancer diagnostic labs for campaigning full-time against Islamophobia.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On 5 August 2018, the Daily Telegraph published a column by the then former foreign secretary Boris Johnson. In it, he wrote that women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.

A week later, Sahar Al-Faifi was leaving the platform of Birmingham New Street station. As she headed out, she noticed a group of white men in suits, passing by the station.

“One of them looked at me and said, ‘you’re a letterbox’, straight into my face.”

Speaking to me over the phone more than a year later, the molecular geneticist from Cardiff is recalling details of the incident after appearing in Channel 5’s documentary on Monday, Hate Crime: Uncensored, which includes grim testimonies from a variety of hate crime victims.

“It shocked me to the core,” she says of the incident. “I didn’t realise it can happen that quickly. Sadly, this kind of verbal abuse has become part of my life, but I’m used to ‘terrorist’ or ‘bomber’, I’m used to things like ‘go back to your country’, but ‘letterbox’ – that was completely new to be added to the dictionary of hate.”

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The perpetrator’s attire also struck her at the time. “Usually, the men who abuse me – they’re teenagers with hoodies or just casual clothing, you can tell most of them might be working-class, or young, and so on. But you could tell they were from a different class, they were wearing suits.”

Al-Faifi, who wears a niqab, responded, “I’m a human being”, warning them that there were cameras around and that she would call the police.

“I embarrassed them in public,” she tells me. “He was himself shocked, because he was under the impression that I’m a veiled Muslim woman, I have no voice, and he can say whatever he wants. But I didn’t let it go, actually, and I reported it straight away. Sadly, they didn’t find them, but I did what I had to do.”

She’s not alone. Following the politician who is now Prime Minister’s column, hate crime monitor Tell MAMA recorded its biggest spike in anti-Muslim hatred in 2018.

Reported anti-Muslim incidents went up from eight the previous week to 38 the week following publication, and 22 of those were directed at Muslim women wearing the niqab or other kinds of veil. Between 5 and 29 August, 42 per cent of Islamophobic incidents reported to Tell MAMA directly referred to Boris Johnson or the language used in his column.

Two years ago, after six years working in the NHS following her degree and masters, Al-Faifi made “one of the biggest decisions in my life” to leave her work in cancer diagnostic labs to become a full-time anti-Islamophobia campaigner.

“The main reason that drove me to make this decision is the countless abuse that I faced, verbal and even physical abuse, but also the number of victims that I happen to interact with who have been subject to hate crime,” she says. “It was really anger that drove me to make this decision that I wanted to make the change, but not only make it, lead it at the same time.”

She describes facing Islamophobic views even from patients in the hospital where she worked. “It was quite painful because I’d leave the lab where I analysed DNA samples, I’m treating these patients, they go out, people see me, they call me a ‘bomber’ or ‘terrorist’.”

Al-Faifi finds the abuse she receives more acute now than at any other moment in her lifetime growing up in Wales.

“Especially after Brexit, without a doubt,” she says. “A lot of people in power and politicians who have been making anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-black statements have normalised hate and bigotry so much so that it trickles down from the top to bottom… I think the discussions associated with Brexit are extremely polarised and divisive… negative sentiments expressed by irresponsible politicians have contributed massively.

“So an average man in the street has now more audacity to make these comments against a Muslim woman because they have seen Boris Johnson and his like making such comments,” she adds.

“It does really have an impact and it trickles down, and it affects the most vulnerable of our society. In my case, a Muslim woman of colour, who faces already triple discrimination against their faith, against their colour and against their gender.”

Indeed, women have been bearing the brunt of the recent rise in Islamophobic hate crime, with the majority of perpetrators (61 per cent) being white men, according to Tell MAMA stats.

“It’s a manifestation of misogyny and patriarchy because now more men feel they have the right to tell a woman what she should wear, and what she shouldn’t,” says Al-Faifi.

“To criminalise Muslim women, and call them ‘bank robbers’ and so on… You have males expressing their patriarchal tendencies against women, who happen to be Muslim women. So this is now a new phenomenon called gendered Islamophobia.”

Al-Faifi is telling her story as it emerges that hate crimes reported to police in England and Wales have doubled in five years, with spikes after the EU referendum result in 2016, and terrorist attacks in 2017.

She felt “angry, really frustrated” when Johnson became Prime Minister, but also “hopeful, because I know people like him will agitate good people into doing something about it… he will make a lot of people angry and it will agitate them to do something about it”.

Yet she warns that Islamophobic sentiments exist “across the political spectrum nowadays”, including on the left.

She also finds the “print tabloid British media” responsible, mentioning the Sun’s bogus November 2015 front page story about “one in five British Muslims” sympathising with jihadis, plus the “Muslims are taking over, or Halal pizza is everywhere” type of negative, sensationalist stories.

Encouraging victims to report incidents of hate crime, Sahar Al-Faifi concludes, “me, myself, I know in most of the cases the police will not do anything or will not find the perpetrator, but I still report it for only one reason, which is for the statistics – which is really sad, but I know I have to report it at least to make a point that it is getting worse.”

Hate Crimes: Uncensored is now available on My5.

> Surrender acts and lynch mobs: The real-life consequences of inflammatory language

“We should be fearful”: Muslim women on the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming prime minister

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