“With Boris Johnson as PM I think more people will feel emboldened to openly express their contempt and hatred for Muslim women… sometimes in violent ways.”
On 13 June 2019, Boris Johnson and his colleagues celebrated a landslide win in the first round of voting for the Tory leadership elections. That same day, Sophie, a 28-year-old freelance editor from London, was verbally abused and threatened at a bus stop for wearing the niqab. She and her 11-year-old daughter were left in tears, and shaking with fear.
The two incidents might appear unconnected, but rewind to August 2018, when Johnson ridiculed the way Muslim women dressed in his Daily Telegraph column. Then, the link between a leadership win and Islamophobic attack becomes clearer.
Following his controversial and bigoted comments about Muslim women wearing the niqab (a face veil that covers everything but the eyes), Johnson faced a public backlash and investigation by the Conservative party.
Johnson has remained unrepentant about his statements comparing Muslim niqab-wearing women to ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. When challenged over them at a recent leadership launch event he insisted: “I will continue to speak as directly as I can.”
In the week that his offensive column was published there was also a recorded spike in hate crime across the UK, with 21 Muslim women reporting Islamophobic attacks against them.
Yet this wasn’t enough to deter him from running for prime minister. Or put MPs off from voting for him in the first round of leadership elections.
Now, as we gear up to find out who will be the next prime minister, many Muslim women are fearful that a win for Johnson will encourage more attacks towards them.
Last week Sophie was at a bus stop with her daughters when a man approached them and branded her “dangerous”.
“I politely invited him to elaborate,” Sophie told Stylist. “He started ranting about my niqab , how it made me dangerous, and that I shouldn’t be allowed to wear it in this country. His body language and tone was aggressive so we decided to leave, but he continued to yell after us.
“As we walked away, my daughter told me that she’d had both hands on her little sister’s buggy, ready to run with her to safety in case the man ‘killed’ me. I was horrified to realise how scared she’d been and by the time we got home she was crying.”
Unfortunately, cases like Sophie’s are not rare and many Muslim women are fearful that a Johnson-led country will only make things worse. In fact, following Johnson’s comments, the Islamophobia monitoring organisation Tell MAMA saw a spike in verbal attacks against Muslim women, many saying they were called ‘letterboxes’.
“With Boris as PM I think more people will feel emboldened to openly express their contempt and hatred for Muslim women, sometimes in violent ways,” warns Sophie.
Anett Penzes, 26, who wears the niqab, is also worried that someone who could brazenly make such Islamophobic comments stands a solid chance of running the country.
“Boris’ comments on Muslim women were very inappropriate, especially for someone in such a high position,” she tells Stylist. “I’ve had people walk past me and say that they hope the niqab will be banned. It’s very scary.”
Nadia Choudhury, 29, who also wears the niqab, feels that Johnson’s comments were “ignorant” and “hateful”.
“Basic respect for other people’s values is an essential quality of being prime minister – and that’s something Boris doesn’t possess at all,” she says.
With the likelihood of Johnson becoming PM increasing by the day, Nadia says she’s more reluctant to venture out in London or use public transport. “I feel anxious to go outside of my borough and I know of friends who have been verbally attacked following his comments,” she explains.
Sophie also believes that by putting Johnson in power we risk legitimising his past comments.
“Boris is not some bumbling lovable fool,” she says. “He knows exactly what he’s saying and the effect that his words have. Like Trump, he deliberately appeals to the xenophobic majority and his ‘gaffes’ legitimise people’s ugliest prejudices.”
Going forward, if Johnson were to become prime minister, he would need to win back the trust of British Muslim women.
“A lot of work needs to be done to tackle Islamophobia in the UK,” says Sophie. “Boris should start by publicly condemning all hate crime at every opportunity - not just Islamophobia, but anti-Semitism, homophobia and racism too. But I’m not holding my breath.”