Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, has been ordered to apologise for his remarks towards women who wear the burqa in the Telegraph on Monday.
In his column, which was described as a “calculated attack” by MP Naz Shah, he referred to Muslim women as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. He has since come under fire for islamophobia and misogyny.
HuffPost UK spoke to three Muslim women about how comments such as Johnson’s affect them, and the state of Islamophobia in British politics.
“Visibly” Muslim women, which usually refers to women who wear religious coverings, are significantly more likely to be subject to hate crimes in the UK and Europe.
Aima Warriach, a 21-year-old graphic designer, says she thinks that every Muslim woman who has worn a hijab or niqab has been subjected to intolerance and hate, including herself. “I first got my hijab ripped off when I was in elementary school waiting in the lunch line,” she remembers. “And once during a Boxing Day sale a couple of women shouted at my mom telling her it wasn’t Halloween anymore. My sisters have also been called terrorists while riding public transportation.”
But crucially, she says that the behaviour of others who witnessed these attacks is notable: “In each scenario there were bystanders that enabled this behaviour with their silence.”
The Muslim Council of Britain said Johnson’s comments were particularly “crass” at a time when Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred was becoming “worryingly pervasive”.
Noor Alabdulbaqi, deputy editor of Azeema, a magazine exploring resistance and femininity within Middle Eastern and North African women and women of colour, tells us that anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia has been normalised. “What is unfortunate is that women publicly bear a lot of this hatred with very little action from the present government,” she says.
Nafisa Bakkar, co-founder of Amaliah, a platform that centres Muslim women’s voices, says that Johnson’s remarks “give the green light to bigotry” and heighten the risks that Muslim women face. She also talks about the double standards present in Britain with regards to autonomy and choice. “Our society has always pushed for freedom of choice, yet time and time again it seems that there are terms and conditions to the choices that Muslim women can make,” she reasons.
For Aima, men’s voices, particularly those who are not Muslim, should not factor into conversations around the hijab, niqab or burqa at all. “His voice is irrelevant to the conversation” she says. “A woman’s body should not be policed by men or the law. It’s a perfect example of derailing the conversation and providing excuses for one’s islamophobia. He [Johnson] is trying to be the saviour but no one asked for it.” Nafisa agrees, and also calls into question Johnson’s focus on Denmark without attention to Islamaphobia at home: “He would do well to look at the current state in the UK and tackle the rising hate crime, which Muslim women often bear the brunt of.”
But for Noor, who grew up in Saudi Arabia where the niqab, hijab and abaya are normal everyday wear, the relevance voices of non-Muslim men like Boris Johnson can’t yet be be overlooked. “They are relevant due the impact that their voices can achieve. Unfortunately, these are the opinions that tend to be given a platform, the ones that are amplified and the ones that are listened to.”
Aima also points towards the wider dangers excluding marginalised women from conversations around liberation: “White feminism and white men are promoting one form of liberation and this alienates Muslim women, women of colour, and trans women. They need to stop generalising our experiences and speaking on behalf of us.”
Aima emphasises the importance of Muslim women’s autonomy over public conversations around religious dress: “If you want to know what it’s feels like to wear the hijab or niqab, ask someone who actually observes that part of their faith.”
“Islam is a beautiful religion that is followed and practised in many personal ways,” Noor says. “Just as you choose what you wear every day, women should be given the choice to dress how they desire. If you are able to exercise this freedom, then why can’t they?”
Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Tell MAMA, a national project which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents, tells HuffPost UK. “Boris realises that there could be a leadership battle in the next year so he decides to position himself by playing to the soft underbelly of a part of the Conservative Party, one which may have fears about Muslims and who have probably never really got to know Muslims,” he explained. “Who is used in the process? Muslim women who wear the face veil and who suffer some of the most aggressive anti-Muslim hate which Tell MAMA logs.”