Former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson generated controversy in August when he used the terms ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ to describe Muslim women in burkas. Anna Gawlewicz and Kasia Narkowicz argue that while Johnson received a great deal of criticism in the UK for his comments, the use of such language also has the potential to travel internationally with migrants, normalising discrimination in other countries.
In a Telegraph column on 5 August, Boris Johnson described Muslim women in burkas as ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’. The outrage was immediate: posts, tweets, comments, news pieces, even a condemning speech from the UK Prime Minister Theresa May. The former Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London refused to apologise.
The heated debate around Johnson’s comments has parallels in other countries. Our research in Poland and with Polish migrants in the UK shows that this language is more problematic than we think and travels across national borders. Johnson’s comments were familiar to us: it was the very same language that some of our research participants had used in interviews. As part of our doctoral projects, we spoke to 72 Polish people in the UK and Poland about their attitudes towards ‘difference’. Discussions about Muslim women were very common with language playing a key role in expressing these feelings.
The trope of the burka as a ‘letter box’ seems to be an old islamophobic ‘joke’ that until the Johnson affair, and apart from in our interviews, we had seen mostly on nationalist or anti-Muslim blogs and social media. The ‘joke’ apparently goes: ‘What do you do when a Muslim woman knocks on your door? Talk to her through the letter box and see how she likes it!’ The same joke is sometimes illustrated with a letter being pushed through the niqab, as if the space for the eyes in the face veil is mistaken for a letter box.
Following Johnson’s comment, the British comedian Guz Khan recorded a short video on Twitter mocking Johnson’s comparison. While women who wore the niqab posted photos of themselves posing in front of letter boxes, ridiculing Johnson’s comparison. Others, such as Conservative Peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, stressed the central importance of language and the ‘responsibility to help make the space of belonging bigger’.
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In Poland, where we conducted part of our research, violence against Muslims and their places of worship have escalated dramatically in recent years. During the interviews we conducted, many used language of stigma when talking about Muslim women. Some referred to the Muslim veil as a potential threat, echoing Boris Johnson’s reference to ‘bank robbers’.
Some Poles that we interviewed in the UK also described Muslim women as ‘letter boxes’. When asked how they learned these expressions, they pointed to their British colleagues and friends, and other Polish migrants. Apart from the expression ‘letter box’, we found that they had also picked up other slurs. What we further established was that many of our migrant participants stayed in touch with their relatives and friends in Poland and exchanged these expressions in casual conversations. In some cases, non-migrants in Poland hadn’t known these terms before and started using them assuming their validity and correctness (following the principle that migrants ‘know better’ because they live abroad). This led to a vicious circle: migrants picking up the language of stigma in the UK and transmitting it to Poland; non-migrants in Poland believing that this language was appropriate and therefore using it too.
This illustrates that language, like that used by Johnson, travels across national borders with migrants. It spreads and reaches new people and places. It gets popular, gains currency and circulates in a complex process with many actors. In doing so, it not only contributes to the normalisation of Islamophobia among the British public (as we have already seen), but also has a strong legitimising force in ‘other’ places and societies.
In Poland, for example, a country where there’s little contact with difference and nationalistic sentiments are on the rise, there’s limited scope to challenge such language when it’s exported because exported language carries symbolic capital – it comes from ‘experts’, those Poles abroad who are assumed to know how it really is. As a result, a single ‘joke’ by a mainstream politician like Johnson can contribute to the reinforcement of global Islamophobia and may translate to an increase in discrimination, exclusion, and perhaps even hate crime in ‘other’ places.
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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Anna Gawlewicz – University of Glasgow
Anna Gawlewicz is an Urban Studies Foundation Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.
Kasia Narkowicz – University of Gloucestershire
Kasia Narkowicz is a Lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire.
Are we to assume from this that the UK is the only country in the world that exports slurs to other countries and the leading proponent of this is Boris and that other countries around the world do not develop slurs of their own?
Covering the face is a tradition that treated women as property of men. That some women have proudly adopted it as a symbol (or supposedly) a requirement of faith is just fashion. I note that if men were to adopt the same practice if would not be acceptable and society would be more divided.. Imagine a society where the majority of adults (of all gender) covered their face. Would anyone want this? Insults like “letter box” trivialise a practice that promotes gender apartheid…
+. Covering one’s face in public is an act shared by Antifa, the Ku Klux Klan, and burqa wearers; all three are symbols of violence.
+. Women in Iran whom are forced to wear the burqa (a symbol of repression) have publicly removed and/or burned their burqas; alternatively, those with “privilege” in the West wear them to spite Western men, whilst lacking any sympathy for the non-Western women forced to wear them elsewhere.
So the better question is, was Boris telling the truth? The truth cannot be labeled as “racist”. And if the choice is “truth” versus an allegation of “racism”, then the “truth” must always prevail; the “truth” can never be suppressed nor censored.
It is a pity that an academic institution seems to be copying some political commentators’ tendency to re-frame and “interprete” pejoratively what people say rather than report what they actually say.
Boris Johnson’s article was headlined:
“Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it”
… and opened with :
“Ah Denmark, what a country. If any society breathes the spirit of liberty, this is it. “
In short he was defending people’s right to wear what they want !
Boris Johnson did NOT :
i) “ describe Muslim women in burkas as ‘letter boxes’ “- although he was close.
ii) or describe women in burkas “as” bank robbers.
i) He wrote:
“it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around >looking like< letter boxes.”
i.e the emphasis was on what people “look like” – and more importantly what they “choose” to look like.
At no time did he say Muslim women “are” letter boxes – i.e if true, some trait for which they had no choice.
ii) He wrote:
“If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber then ditto: those in authority should be allowed to converse openly with those that they are being asked to instruct."
I don't know about you, but my first thought was that the stereotypical bank robber wore a balaclava or stocking.
Surely it should be up to the school or university how much “like” a bank robber a particular face-covering is – and how likely to impair learning.
Much like it should be alloweable for a bank or a law court to discourage motor-cycle helmets and other face-coverings.
The article goes on to report:
“The outrage was immediate: posts, tweets, comments, news pieces ..etc”
Yet again showing how out of touch some people are (or is it bias ?)
Most callers to LBC saw little or nothing wrong with Johnson's remarks.
Mostly that they were accurate and “fair comment”
Have the authors ever actually tried talking to someone through a letterbox ?
It happens – especially to canvassers !
Perhaps they should try it for themselves before criticising those who have.
In conclusion, this faux outrage "look like" a storm in a teacup stirred up by an out-of-touch metropolitan elite.
Many people agree with Johnson.
Burqas ARE ridiculous – but should NOT be banned by law.
The covering of the face is a Middle Eastern tradition that relates to women being treated as the property of men. In most Arabic and Arabic related societies, it is imposed on women.
That some women in the West proudly freely wear a face covering as a symbol of their faith or because they believe their God wants them to do, is a modern fashion. Jewish people voluntarily wearing yellow stars would be an near comparrision.
If Islam, or any faith, demanded face covering of both gender, one is entitled to wonder at the horror of a society where such a faith was the majority of the population.Most liberals would not welcome such a society.
As such if “only” women wear face covering one has gender apartheid. I do not support bans on face covering in public. Clearly, in very cold weather, one may wish to cover one’s face. Bikinis or Bukinnis are and should be a matter of choice. However, I do not want my doctor, lawyer or child’s teacher to have a face covering. Is it debatable that the “right” to face covering means there is a “right” to refuse a face covered teacher?
As with many complex matters, there may not be any absolute answers. Terms like “letter boxes”” appear to trivialise the problem by making it “funny”. It’s certainly not funny for the millions of women who are forced to wear face covering.. Including Western Muslim women who are under the thumb of their male relatives..