'Dear Boris Johnson': Niqab-wearing women speak out

'Dear Boris Johnson': Niqab-wearing women speak out
The New Arab speaks to three British women who wear the niqab to find out what their experiences have been since Boris Johnson's Islamophobic 'letter boxes' and 'bank robbers' controversy.
7 min read
17 September, 2018
Boris Johnson's comments on Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab were branded inappropriate [Getty]
Following his controversial comments about Muslim women's attire, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has faced intense media scrutiny and a public backlash. 

Johnson described Muslim women wearing burqas and niqabs as looking like "letter boxes" and "bank robbers." 

"If you say that it is weird and bullying to expect women to cover their faces, then I totally agree," he wrote in his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph in early August, adding that he found it "absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes."

Any female student who turned up to school "looking like a bank robber" should be asked to remove their face covering, he added.

The former top diplomat, who ostensibly resigned over the UK's Brexit plans, was branded a "pound shop Donald Trump" over his comments against the religious dress.

Bloggers and columnists promptly headed online to voice their thoughts and publish opinion pieces on Johnson's comments, but the voice of those who have been affected by it the most still remain few and far between.

The New Arab caught up with three British women who wear the niqab, a veil for the face that leaves only the eye area clear, to find out what their experiences have been since the controversy began last month.

Anett Penzes, a 26-year-old woman from London, started wearing the niqab three years ago, shortly after converting to Islam. She was shocked that someone as high profile as Johnson could make such brazen comments.

By making such comments, it will only make more people think that they have the right to attack Muslim women

"Boris' comments on niqabi women looking like letter boxes and bank robbers were very inappropriate, especially for someone in such a high position," she says. "I've had people walk past me and say that they hope the niqab will be banned. It's very scary."

Souad Mohammed, 44, a youth worker from Notting Hill, lost all her friends after she began wearing the niqab back in 1992. Now, following Johnson's comments, she worries that it will lead to a complete niqab ban in the UK.

Read also: Ban Boris, not the burqa

"There are hard times to come," she says. "I've been discriminated against because of my niqab, even by people in high positions, so the comments Boris made didn't surprise me at all."

Johnson has remained unrepentant over his comments, but there are have been calls for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in political parties. One petition gained more than 30,000 signatures in just two days.

Dear Mr Boris Johnson,

I am writing this letter to draw your attention,
In response to the hate message you did mention.

I hear you likened women like me to a letter box or a criminal.
But I have to say, dear Mr politician you are such an imbecile.

You want fight my so-called oppression by objectifying me,
So tell me, does it make me more liberated to be forced into your ideology of free?

And if wearing a niqab or a burqa makes me look like a criminal,
Does it attach every man in a well-priced suit to the same label, or in your court of law is that not admissible?

And I’m told time and time again that covering my body completely is outdated.
Yet I struggle to understand how stripping me of my clothing would make me modern and educated?

It may surprise you to know that I wear this veil not because I am ashamed or afraid of my identity,
Rather I wear this veil because this is my statement of who I want the world to see.

It does not make me any less intelligent by this choice I take to cover myself,
And know that I am confident enough to only need my mind to represent myself.

And when you hear this letter, did it make my message any less clear because you could not see the face behind the women who spoke it?

When you answer a phone call, does it offend you then that you can not see the person behind the phone who rang it?

So can you see how your logic to me is just pure ignorant,
A thing does not become wrong just because from you it is different.

So I am told that this great British nation is a country of freedom and tolerance,
Or is that tolerance for all accept for the one with the Muslim appearance?

Is it that difficult to mutually respect people with different backgrounds and beliefs to you?
Or do you just prefer robots all controlled under the same rules as you?

And do not forget amongst Nelson Mandela’s fight for freedom was also his fight for dignity,
As when imprisoned he fought for the right to wear long trousers just as he fought for unity.

So you see, the right to be clothed as you wish to be is just as important as the right to be free.

So dear Mr Boris Johnson,
I’m here to tell you that your hate message for social injustice

Makes you the criminal, not me.

I ask simply that you respect my freedom to clothe myself how I wish to be,
And do not oppress me with your injustice and tell me that this is free.

- Poem by spoken word artist, Nadia Choudhury
Follow her on Instagram: @n.c_writes

Many feel that Johnson's comments will only make more people think that they have the right to attack Muslim women.

Nadia Choudhury, a 29-year-old spoken word artist from east London, started wearing the niqab two years ago. 

"Although it's something you wear as part of your outward appearance, it heavily impacts you inwardly," she explains.

"Back when I wasn't a practising Muslim I lived quite a superficial life and I was so fixated on my appearance, but then when I started to practice my religion, I realised how much more valuable and important it is to focus on being beautiful from the inside. I felt like wearing the niqab would help me work on that.

"When I read Boris Johnson's comments I thought how ignorant and hateful of him to make a joke out of us. I can understand why the niqab seems 'strange' to someone who isn't Muslim - and in fact, a lot of Muslims have the same view - but I also think basic respect for other people's views and values is part and parcel of being a well-educated person. As a high profile politician he should have shown some respect, especially with Islamophobia on the rise," Nadia adds. 

"By making such comments, it will only make more people think that they have the right to attack Muslim women."

Living in a predominantly Muslim community, Nadia says she hasn't received any immediate backlash but the comments have made her more reluctant to venture to other parts of London or use public transport.

Read more: Muslim Council of Britain concerned at Boris Johnson's 'Islamophobia'

"His comments made me feel anxious to go out of my borough and I know of friends who have been verbally attacked" she explains.

"I've had uncomfortable stares, and there was a time when a mother and daughter kept turning around to look at me rudely while I was on the train in north London. I said to them: 'You don't have to be scared of me, I'm not an alien, just a normal woman like you,' to which the mother replied: 'Women are beautiful you shouldn't be covering it all up.'

"I said 'that's exactly why I cover up, because I know I am beautiful, and as a fellow woman you should respect another woman's choice in how she wants to cover her body. What message are you teaching your daughter?!'

"After that she became very rude, but I'm not one to take abuse and let people think women in niqab have no voice and can be bullied. I'm a confident woman and have no problem using my words to defend myself."

The niqab has always divided opinions, with or without a controversial £275,000-a-year newspaper column, but Johnson has added fuel to an already raging fire, leaving Muslim women worried.

So what's the next step?

Anti-Islamophobia campaigners maintain that education is the best way forward - but can only be implemented when Muslim women speak up and share their stories to eradicate misconceptions and stereotypes.

"The biggest misconception people have about the niqab is that women are forced to wear it by their fathers or husbands," says Nadia.

"A lot of people assumed my husband wanted me to wear it, or that I was pressured by him, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

"Many people also assume women who wear niqab are uneducated, or a foreigner, or unable to speak up, when in fact, most of the women I know who wear niqab are educated, sociable and incredibly well-spoken."

Sami Rahman is a freelance lifestyle writer based in London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @bysamirahman