How Boris Johnson’s ‘letterbox’ gaffe has impacted UK women in niqabs

Sajeda Momin

Published: Updated:

Ever since Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary, described burkas as resembling “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” last week, the number of hate crimes against Muslim women, particularly those wearing the hijab and niqab, has spiked abnormally.

The government-backed hate-crime monitoring group Tell Mama said that in the last one week they have received more than a dozen complaints from mostly niqab-wearing women who claim that the abusers either used phrases such as “letterbox” or referred to Johnson when harassing them.

Johnson made the Islamophobic comments in his column that appeared in The Daily Telegraph newspaper last Monday. In the week before Johnson’s comments, Tell Mama reported no incidents against women wearing a niqab.

“Johnson’s recent comments have made me fearful of even going to work or out of the house on my own. My husband and I are considering moving to an Arab country where we would feel more comfortable and do not have to put up with such abuse,” said one of the victims of abuse who lives in central England.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), which has pointed out Islamophobia in the Conservative party in the past, criticized Johnson’s comment and the support he has received from a section of his party as validating their arguments. “The impact of Boris Johnson’s comments is real and worrying and indicates the importance of a full, transparent and independent investigation into his conduct, in particular given the lack of action in previous cases of Islamophobia in the party,” said Harun Rashid Khan, MCB’s general secretary.

Johnson’s comments on the burka as “oppressive and ridiculous” are seen as calculated and deliberate, which appeal to the alt-right both within the Tory party and outside, and part of the leadership challenge he is rumoured to launch against Prime Minister Theresa May in the autumn. Johnson had resigned from the Cabinet last month, ostensibly as he opposed the direction May’s Brexit policy was taking, but his own aspirations to take over May’s job are not a secret.

May asked Johnson to apologise for his comments, but the cunning politician has refused calling it ‘ridiculous’, claiming that they were part of his effort to speak up for ‘liberal values’. His column has provoked anger from both Muslim and non-Muslim members of the Tory party.

A Conservative peer and former aide to Prime Minister David Cameron accused Johnson of “moral emptiness” and “courting fascism”. Lord Cooper was scathing in his criticism. “The rottenness of Johnson goes deeper than even casual racism. He will advocate literally anything to play to the crowd of the moment. His career is a saga of moral emptiness and lies; pathetic, weak and needy; the opposite of strong,” said Lord Cooper. Another senior MP, Dominic Grieve, said he would leave the party if Johnson became its leader.

Not a mistake

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, one of the Conservative party’s most high-profile Muslims has criticized Johnson for making “hate crime more likely”.

“I refuse to accept that these phrases were some kind of a mistake and the offence inadvertent – Johnson is too intelligent and too calculating for that. No, this was all quite deliberate. His refusal to apologise supports that,” said Warsi.

Lord Sheikh, the founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, set up to encourage British Muslims to get involved in political life urged the Tories to withdraw the whip from Johnson, which amounts to virtually throwing him out of the party. “Take the whip from him. Why not? He’s not a super human being, he’s a member of the party” said Sheikh.

It is unlikely that May will do that as it would escalate the crisis and allow Johnson to divide the party further, but it is possible that he may be asked to take diversity training, which the former Mayor of London is unlikely to accept either.

Johnson has many defenders too. A recent poll for Sky News found that around 60% of the public did not see his comments as racist. Conservatives like Jacob Rees-Mogg said Johnson was simply using ‘colourful’ language and “pointing out that the burka is not an elegant form of dress”.

An internal disciplinary investigation has already been launched by the party leadership. Its decision is awaited.