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The Muslim Women’s Network has a powerful message for Boris Johnson

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Kayleigh Dray
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LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Two women wearing Islamic niqab veils stand outside the French Embassy during a demonstration on April 11, 2011 in London, England. France has become the first country in Europe to ban the wearing of the veil and in Paris two women have been detained by police under the new law. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

“Boris Johnson is using women’s dress as a political tool to promote fear and hatred,” says the Muslim Women’s Network.

Boris Johnson has been heavily criticised for saying Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes” and comparing them to “bank robbers”.

“If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree,” he said, in an opinion piece published in Monday’s Daily Telegraph.

“I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.”

Johnson – who recently resigned as British foreign secretary – went on to say that individual businesses or branches of Government should be free to enforce a dress code that enables their workers to best interact with customers – which could involve removing the veils.

However, he added: “I am against a total ban because it is inevitably construed – rightly or wrongly – as being intended to make some point about Islam.”

Responding to the politician’s Islamophobic comments, the Muslim Women’s Network (MWNUK) has branded Johnson as being hugely “irresponsible”.

“His comments will incite hatred and put Muslim women who veil in danger,” says a spokesperson for the feminist charity. “Instead of challenging similar far right rhetoric, Boris Johnson is pandering to their agenda by deliberately adopting xenophobic discourses. He knows the face veil has become an emotive issue in Europe and is using this issue to get media attention and publicity.”

The MWNUK spokesperson continues: “It is worrying that some politicians continue to give Muslim women’s dress disproportionate attention given that of the 1.4 million Muslim women and girls in the UK, only a tiny minority of Muslim women (potentially from a few hundred to even a few thousand) wear the face veil. It is also interesting to note that in this widespread campaign against the face veil across Europe, the leading voices are those of men.

“They are using women’s dress as a political tool to promote fear and hatred.”

MWNUK Chair Shaista Gohir says: “The right to freedom of speech and therefore criticise the veil can be done in a respectful way with intellectual arguments without comparing women who veil with letterboxes and bank robbers. Although he does not support a veil ban, by using language that dehumanises Muslim women and compares them to criminals puts them in danger of physical and verbal abuse.

“We must support women, including those who choose to cover their face, to make independent choices about how they dress whatever that may be.”

MWNUK is not alone in condemning Johnson’s comments: his remakrks have provoked criticism from other Muslim groups, some Tory MPs and opposition parties.

Indeed, PM Theresa May is among those demanding Johnson apologise, saying the remarks have “clearly caused offence”.

“It is very clear that anybody who is talking about this needs to think very carefully about the language they use,” she said.

“So I agree [that Johnson needs to apologise].”

However, while MWNUK welcomes the prime minister’s support, the charity adds that May needs to take action if Johnson refuses to issue a statement of regret.

“If he does not then he should face disciplinary action because as one Muslim Women’s Network member, who called today, said: ‘Such comments have real consequences for real women in the real world,’” they say.

“If he is not reprimanded then it legitimises incitement of hatred against Muslim women. This is yet another example of Islamophobic language emerging from senior members of the Conservative Party.”

It is worth noting that a source close to Johnson has said he “won’t be apologising” for speaking his mind.

“We must not fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues,” the source added to the BBC.

“We have to call it out. If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we are simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists.”

Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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