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

The real-life effect of the Tory leadership candidate’s column describing women wearing the burqa as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.

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In August last year, 21 Muslim women in the UK reported Islamophobic abuse in one week. Fourteen wore the hijab and seven wore the niqab.

They were on the receiving end of a spike in hate crime against Muslim women that occurred after 5 August 2018, when Boris Johnson wrote a Daily Telegraph column describing women wearing the burqa as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”. It was a sharp rise on the previous week, which saw five reports to the hate crime monitor Tell MAMA, which gathered the stats.

Three days after his words were published, two white women in London repeated Johnson’s “letter box” insult loudly while sitting by a woman wearing a hijab waiting in a doctor’s surgery. They were describing another woman present, who was wearing a niqab: “She does look like a letter box though… I can’t even understand what she’s saying coz her face is covered.”

Five days after the column, a man in the Exeter area repeatedly shouted “letter box” at a woman walking to Friday prayers, in the company of a child. Three days later, her older sister was called a “letter box” by a man as she returned home from work, passing a group of people drinking outside a pub. Both women wore the hijab.

Over two weeks after, a Muslim woman wearing an abaya and niqab on her way to work in the London area was shouted at and called a “post box” by construction workers, who also asked her if they were “expecting a delivery”.

There were plenty more, told to get out of “this country”, called “terrorists” and threatened that they should “be shot”, in what was described as a “sharp and temporary spike in reports from Muslim women” following Johnson’s comments by Tell MAMA at the time.

As Johnson faced investigation by the party, 100 British Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab wrote a letter to the Conservative chairman, Brandon Lewis, demanding the former foreign secretary be kicked out of the party. They agreed with the Conservative peer, Mohamed Iltaf Sheikh, who called for Johnson to have the whip removed. “Such vile language which has real consequences for us, should never be acceptable,” they wrote.

Nevertheless, Johnson was cleared by the investigation, has refused to apologise for his language, and when asked about it at his leadership launch this week, insisted: “I will continue to speak as directly as I can.”

Now he leads the leadership race with 114 votes from his fellow MPs, and is the frontrunner to be next prime minister.

How do Muslim woman in Britain feel about this prospect?

“The fact that a man with that history who has provoked that kind of reaction — and people who are impacted by it will tell you he is an Islamophobe — that somebody who holds those views, has hurt people in that way, and finds those ideas acceptable, will be our prime minister is scary and it’s insulting,” says Rehana Faisal, 41, who lives in Luton and wears an abaya and hijab.

“The direction that Britain is going in is quite a scary prospect for us already,” she tells me. Indeed, Muslim women bear the brunt of the rise in Islamophobic hate crimes in the UK.

“I think there is an acceptability around Islamophobia that isn’t sitting in the fringes somewhere but is very mainstream, and is regurgitated on mainstream TV with very little challenge,” she tells me.

“So it was already a very difficult time, but I think that Boris Johnson becoming prime minister sends a signal to us about the direction the country is going in, and that we should be legitimately more fearful about the way we are treated.”

Faisal has chaired a Muslim women’s community group called Lantern in Luton for four years, and knows of women who experienced hostility after Johnson’s column was published.

“I remember a number of women either having people they knew jokingly use those terms, but in a few cases just shouting it across the road,” she says. “[In general] I think there is a marked increase in hostility, a marked increase in bigotry. Whether it’s overt or whether it’s more subtle, you certainly see a lot more of it and hear a lot more of it.”

She sees the success of Johnson as a sign of “the acceptability of those conversations within our mainstream”: “He still thinks that it was ok for him to refer to a minority within a minority within a minority as ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes’. He thinks it’s ok to refer to human beings as inanimate objects.”

When she heard the news of Johnson running for the Conservative leadership, the first thing Nazmin Akthar, a lawyer from the northeast, thought of was his Telegraph column about the burqa.

“If he did become prime minister, essentially it would send out the message to Muslim women that it’s perfectly acceptable to objectify and dehumanise them for personal and political gain,” she tells me.

She doesn’t wear the hijab herself, but she tells me her mother does, and her mother’s best friend wears the veil and headscarf. As chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, she hears “frequent” stories of racist abuse, including that of “a woman who was having her hijab pulled and being told to ‘get out of the country, you look ridiculous’” a couple of months ago.

There was “a lot of disappointment, sadness, some were worried as well” among the reactions of women in her network to Johnson’s column. “One comment that came to us was what he doesn’t realise is that such comments have real consequences for real women in the real world,” she says.

“Someone is going to read what you say, interpret it, apply it, and ultimately it’s Muslim women who are impacted by it, especially visibly Muslim women, so women who wear the hijab or the face veil. They’re the ones that are attacked the most.”

Politicians making such comments “essentially gives those on the far right the go-ahead”, she says. “They think, ‘if politicians are saying that then we must be right, it’s perfectly acceptable for us to then shout abuse at Muslim women or go as far as throwing things at them, hitting them, trying to pull the veil.’”

This real-life impact is one of the main reasons Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum — a grouping inside the Conservative Party — is so against a Boris Johnson premiership.

“There was a clear spike in anti-Muslim incidents particularly directed at women in the few weeks following that column, which linked directly back to the column,” he tells me. “There’s no doubt about it at all, that article directly contributed to verbal abuse of Muslim women and in some cases physical abuse, like men trying to tear off women’s niqabs.”

Amin, who has been a member of the party for 36 years and whose own extended family do not wear the hijab or burqa, will resign his post and leave the party if Johnson wins.

“If Boris Johnson becomes leader of the party, I consider him so unfit to be leader that I will leave the party, after 36 years,” he says. “I think the man has no concept of truth or falsehood. I don’t trust him in the slightest… I think there are many other people who would be equally unhappy with Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader, if they’re Muslims. I don't know whether other people will resign as I intend to do, but I’m quite clear that I will resign.”

Amin also reveals that he received emails and messages from Conservative Muslim voters and members saying “they were thinking of leaving” after Johnson’s column.

“I’ve had a lot of contacts from people, and the consistent view from that time onwards was that — and this was a view that came strongly from lots of people who themselves don’t wear hijab or burqa – they were all horrified by the approach that Boris took,” he says.

“On the one hand he was being liberal Boris saying we shouldn’t ban this, but at the same time by slagging off women who wear it, he was clearly trying to appeal to quite xenophobic people, the kind of people who are most of the membership of the present-day Conservative Party,” he adds.

“The members on average are quite a lot older than the average person in society. The party is much whiter than society as a whole. And I believe that Boris wrote that article quite deliberately to basically pander to those sentiments as part of a future leadership bid.”

It won’t be long until Tory Muslims, and the UK’s Muslim community as a whole, will found out with the rest of the country whether this perceived strategy has worked.

As for Rehana Faisal in Luton, she fears for her children’s future in Boris Johnson’s Britain. “I’ve experienced racism all through my life. I’m a woman of colour, I’m visibly Muslim, I’ve experienced that all my life, but I expected for that to change over time — and it has changed, but it’s changed for the worse.”

This piece is taken from the Johnson audit series

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.