Hate crimes against Muslim women in Britain could jump after former foreign minister Boris Johnson likened burqa-wearers to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”, activists said on Thursday.
Anti-hate crime groups said the comments by Johnson, who resigned last month, would encourage Islamophobic and sexist abuse at a time when attacks were already on the rise.
“This inflammatory language will in fact motivate and fuel hate crimes, particularly towards visibly Muslim women who wear the veil or the hijab,” Sajda Mughal, who runs the JAN Trust charity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said that her group, which works with marginalised women, had already taken three calls in the last two days from hijab-wearing women who reported being called “letter boxes”.
A top Conservative known for flamboyant phrasing and eccentric stunts, Johnson is facing an internal Conservative investigation over his remarks, which have reignited a debate over religious facial coverings and split his party.
“The code of conduct process is strictly confidential,” said a Conservative Party spokesman.
A former journalist who has often been accused of courting media attention, Johnson was not available for comment.
He has voiced leadership ambitions in the past and critics say the provocative remarks pander to anti-immigrant sentiment, which is sweeping Britain and swathes of Europe.
Denmark last week became the latest of several European countries to adopt curbs on face veils.
Johnson, who quit power over the state of Brexit negotiations, wrote in The Daily Telegraph this week that Denmark was wrong to ban the burqa, a head-to-toe cloak which conceals the face with a mesh or is worn in conjunction with the niqab – a face veil that leaves only the eyes exposed.
But Johnson also said the robe was oppressive, ridiculous and made women look like letter boxes and bank robbers, prompting an outcry from politicians and British Muslim groups.
Critics say burqas and similar face coverings pose a security risk and are a tool to control women. Supporters say women should be free to dress as they choose and that such divisive debate only increases pressure on them to cover up.
Official data says hate crime of all types is on the rise.
A Home Office report said more than 80,000 incidents were recorded across England and Wales in 2016-17, a jump of nearly a third on the year before. Most were deemed racist, with religiously-motivated incidents making up 7 percent (5,949).
The campaign group Tell MAMA, which records anti-Muslim attacks in Britain, said it had verified 1,201 such incidents last year, with figures steadily rising since 2015.
It said Islamophobia was “heavily gendered” with white men carrying out almost three quarters of verified incidents last year, while Muslim women made up more than half of victims.
The group’s founder Fiyaz Mughal said he feared Johnson’s remarks would embolden racists and provoke more attacks.
“The women who wear the niqab and report into us clearly report to us they are called telephone boxes, letter boxes, bin bags, when they are abused and when they are assaulted. The language is virtually identical,” he said.
Shreen Mahmood, a radio presenter in Birmingham who wears the hijab, said she had suffered verbal abuse and knew of others who had been spat at or had their head coverings pulled.
“Islamophobia does play a big role in Muslim women’s lives,” she said in a telephone interview from the Midlands. “I always carry water … because of the potential of acid attacks and things like that – it’s something we are all aware of.”