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More Women Wearing Veils Are Experiencing Islamophobic Abuse, Warns UK Watchdog

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A watchdog that records Islamophobic hate crimes has reported a spike in incidents of women wearing veils being called “letterboxes.” 

Tell Mama, a UK-based organisation, reportedly said there was a “direct link” between the abuse women have experienced on the street and the comments made by Boris Johnson on Aug. 5 in an article for the Daily Telegraph.

The former foreign secretary compared women who wear burqas to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers” in the article — which has sparked strong reaction both against and in support of his comments. 

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In the week before the article was published, no incidents were reported to the watchdog by women who’d been targeted for wearing a veils that covers their face — although several women wearing headscarves had reported incidents. 

In the week since the article was published, however, four women in have been called “letterboxes” in public, in London and Luton, reported the Independent

“Over the weekend, I went on a trip with a group of women and a male passenger allowed us to board the train first,” Rabina Khan, a councillor from Tower Hamlets, wrote in the Independent. “One of the women was wearing a niqab and she was the last one to get on the train. The man launched and said ‘hold on, you forgot the letterbox’.” 

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“If freedom of speech means accepting highly offensive behaviour towards people who have done nothing more than step onto a train for an enjoyable day out, we have a lot of self-reflection to do,” she said. 

“It’s another example of dismissing people’s humanity — and diversity and inclusion — for political gain, without realising the detrimental effect (mentally as well as physically) that it has upon those targeted,” she added. 

According to Tell Mama, however, the true number of incidents could also be higher than those reported. Fiyaz Mughal, the founder of Tell Mama, said that women who wear the veil are known to “rarely report any anti-Muslim hate since they become desensitised to it through being targeted many times.” 

Boris Johnson’s comments aren’t the first time that Muslim women — particularly those who choose to wear a veil — have been negatively categorised by British politicians. In 2016 too, David Cameron sparked a flood of social media reactions after he called Muslim women “submissive.”

Social media users took the opportunity to share dozens of examples of their and their relatives’ achievements, under the hashtag #TraditionallySubmissive, in defiance of stereotyping. 

Just last month, Tell Mama warned that a rise in Islamophobic incidents was being driven by “political discourse” — when the organisation released its 2017 report into anti-Muslim hate crimes. 

The analysis showed a “marked shift towards more serious offline incidents such as physical attacks, threatening behaviour, and abuse more generally” — with the organisation recording its highest number of anti-Muslim attacks since it began logging them. 

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“We are in deeply worrying times where people are looking for certainty and what they are getting is instability at a political and societal level,” said director of Tell Mama, Iman Atta. “This means that at times like this, minority groups are the ones who suffer the anger of those looking to vent their fears, insecurities, and concerns.” 

In the week following the 2016 EU referendum, for example, Tell Mama recorded a 475% increase in the number of offline anti-Muslim incidents. In the week following the Manchester Arena attack in May 2017, it recorded a 700% increase in incidents — disportionately directed at women. 

The rise in Islamophobic incidents following Johnson’s comments reflects a trend noted by Tell Mama in its 2017 report, that “events which stimulate public discourse on immigration and Islam can correspond with a demonstrable ‘spike’ in anti-Muslim hate crimes and incidents.”

“It is vital to note, however, that these events are not the underlying cause of anti-Muslim incidents, but rather, as the term implies, act as ‘triggers’, where people with latent racial prejudices feel emboldened to act on their views, violently or otherwise,” says the report. 

“Perpetrators often reference mainstream discourse concerning immigration and terrorism alongside broadly Islamophobic and dehumanising language to abuse their victims,” it adds.