UK Muslim women on Boris Johnson’s racist ‘burka’ comments

The former foreign secretary is yet to apologise for saying Muslims wearing the full face veil ‘look like letter boxes’.

British Muslim women on Boris Johnson burka comment
Nada UmmNour, who has been threatened by racists, says Johnson is normalising aggressive behaviour [Courtesy: Nada UmmNour]

Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary, is facing growing criticism following Islamophobic remarks about some Muslim women.

The Conservative MP wrote in his recent Telegraph column that Muslim women wearing full-face veils “look like letter boxes” and compared their appearance to “bank robbers”.

The “burka”, he said, is oppressive.

Muslim Conservative peer Lord Sheikh said that Johnson, a high-profile MP and a leading Brexit campaigner, should no longer represent the Conservatives – the UK’s ruling party.

Boris Johnson, pictured here with the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, has angered Muslims with his Islamophobic commentary on the full face veil [Handout/KUNA/AFP]
Boris Johnson, pictured here with the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, has angered Muslims with his Islamophobic commentary on the full face veil [Handout/KUNA/AFP]

Following the remarks, Muslim Conservative peer Baroness Warsi renewed a call for the Conservatives to conduct an independent inquiry into alleged Islamophobia in the party.

And Prime Minister Theresa May has urged Johnson to apologise, acknowledging his comments were offensive.

Al Jazeera spoke to four Muslim women about Johnson’s comments and their experiences of wearing the niqab – or full-face veil – in today’s Britain.

‘Boris Johnson is dehumanising me’

Nada UmmNour is a graduate biochemist and is originally Canadian. She has been living in Birmingham, England, for the last four years.

“I’ve faced a lot of harassment for wearing the niqab. I’ve been walking down the street and have had people swear at me and use crude words. One guy – while I was driving, and while he was driving next to me – turned to me and made the gesture of a handgun and pretended to shoot me in the head. It definitely makes me feel scared.

Boris Johnson is just normalising this behaviour. He’s a prominent politician – and a former foreign minister of the country – and he’s literally dehumanising me as a person. Normalising this kind of anti-Muslim hatred is definitely a big deal. But he’s not just mocking the niqab – because the niqab is just clothes – but he’s also mocking the people who wear it. He should apologise for his remarks – but I think the damage is done, especially against the backdrop of rising far-right movements in this country, which make his comments quite dangerous.

I’m not oppressed – because wearing the niqab is my choice. It’s like I have to prove to people I’m not being oppressed. I think it’s a form of misogyny to put a woman in a position where she has to constantly justify her actions. There have been times when I’ve chosen not to wear it because I’m scared of harassment – and I worry for my kids’ safety.”

‘It’s like the whole Donald Trump thing, they have no respect’

Chowdhury is from the East Midlands. She is doing a PhD in forensic psychology.

“I have been wearing the niqab for almost 18 years now. Johnson’s comments just seemed so childish and so ignorant. I found them so immature and completely inappropriate. But my next thought after that was, ‘Right, what’s the backlash going to be? Is it just going to give people an excuse to do what they want?’ It’s like the whole Donald Trump thing – you’ve got one person who has a prominent position so they feel that gives them the right to do what they want – but they have no respect for individuals or people.

I’ve been quite fortunate over the 18 years I’ve worn my niqab – but in the last five years or so, I have had the odd comment here and there, such as the letter-box comment and being compared with a ninja. That’s about as bad as I’ve had it fortunately – but I do know other people who have had much worse experiences.

Nobody should have pressure to conform to a certain way of dressing – it’s all about personal choice. I think there needs to be more interaction between people who are and [who are not] veiled – so I think on our part we need to be doing a bit more. But in Britain today, it’s hard work to wear the veil.”

‘We have a white middle-aged man telling us this is not how we should look’

Sahar Al-Faifi lives and works in Cardiff, Wales.

“I don’t think that I am oppressed. I am a geneticist by training – and last week I passed level one of solo sky-diving to become a licensed sky-diver. I can’t be oppressed if I do all these things. Women have been choosing to wear the veil out of choice for centuries – it’s never been about the Islaminisation of Europe or Britain, it’s just about a woman who chooses to wear a certain piece of fabric to practise her faith. 

I’ve been told I’m an f-word bomber, and there was another incident at the hospital site where I work, where I saw two teenagers trying to steal bikes and I attempted to stop them, and straight away they said, ‘You’re an f-ing terrorist, go back to your country’.

Sahar Al-Faifi is a geneticist and has been verbally attacked while wearing the veil [Courtesy: Sahar Al-Faifi]
Sahar Al-Faifi is a geneticist and has been verbally attacked while wearing the veil [Courtesy: Sahar Al-Faifi]

It’s very, very painful to hear this because I am from Wales – Wales is part of me and I am part of Wales. I am an active citizen and I contribute to this society and yet people cannot go beyond the face veil I want to wear – not all people but just a minority who happen to be vocal.

I found Boris Johnson’s comments quite insulting and very offensive – because when you describe the Muslim woman as a letter-box, you dehumanise her, and when you describe her as a bank-robber, you are criminalising her. And we are already facing discrimination against our faith, and race and colour – and now we have a white middle-aged man telling us this is not how we should look.”

‘It’s my right to be wearing it’

Shamim is from the West Midlands. She works in the Documenting Oppression Against Muslims (DOAM) project. 

“They say he’s a buffoon and quite Donald Trump-like, but Boris Johnson is quite a clever man. So, for him to make comments like that, they may not seem big comments – not as bad as someone like [far-right former English Defence League leader] Tommy Robinson. Johnson’s comments may not seem as direct or as offensive, but his are more detrimental than Tommy Robinson because at least with Tommy Robinson you get what you see, and he makes it quite clear how much he hates Islam.

I’m a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the niqab – and every day I have to plan ahead – ‘Am I going to be attacked today or am I going to be abused today?’ But it’s my right to be wearing it. It’s my right as a woman – and even if your husband tells you to take it off, you could divorce him because that’s your worship to God.

I see myself as a proactive Muslim – but the best thing I ever did in my life was to put on the niqab. I have been wearing it for more than five years but I regret not wearing it earlier.”

Every day, Shamim fears being attacked [Courtesy: Shamim]
Every day, Shamim fears being attacked [Courtesy: Shamim]

Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

Source: Al Jazeera