Earlier this week, Boris Johnson publicly compared Muslim women who wear the burqa to bank robbers and letterboxes. To thieves and letterboxes. To individuals who steal money, and to the cold rectangular metal objects of which letters are posted into.
These comments are so layered in their offensiveness, but they are also quite simply repulsive and racist. And despite calls for an apology this white, cis, privileged man has remained silent. Because he can. Because silence is the epitome of power in situations such as this.
In stark contrast, Muslim women have once again been forced to speak out and defend their choices and their faith. They have been forced to explain the difference between a burqa, a niqab, a chador and a hijab for the millionth time. They have been forced to explain that comments like Johnson’s are not only racist but dangerous – evidenced by the 26% rise in Islamophobic attacks from 2016-2017.
A lot has been written about the impacts that these comments may well have on Muslim women’s safety, and there is justifiable concern that, once again, racism within the Conservative party will justify the everyday acts of racist violence that are only increasing. But within all of this it is also important to remember the real people who are being harmed just by reading these words.
According to the 2011 census there are around 2.3 million Muslim women living in the UK. The vast percentage of these women will have seen the mass media coverage about Johnson’s comments. And they will have also seen the vitriol that has been unleashed on social media as a result – an example being comments made by the likes of Fay from Brighton who stated that Muslim women are ‘victims of rigid social custom and misogynistic control’. Once again Muslim women are being forced to shoulder all of the emotional labour. To be resilient. To speak out. To break the silence. And enough is enough.
Veiling is a choice, and yes it is absolutely possible to argue that no choice is fully free. But this does not make the choice to veil any less valid, or deserving of respect and support.
Violence takes many forms. The ripping off of a Muslim women’s hijab on public transport is direct and highly visible violence, and the shouting of racist insults is also clearly a form of violence. Yet violence is also the act of doing nothing. Violence is standing and watching a veil being ripped off and saying nothing. Violence is sitting back and filming as a Muslim woman is racially abused over and over and over again.
The UK is racist, and our culture is hostile – particularly towards those who visibly deviate from the dominant expectation of white ‘Britishness’. The only way to challenge this racist violence is through intervening every single time we see racism and sexism.
Bystander intervention is a simple concept, but it is also revolutionary. When you see someone being racially or sexually harassed or violated – in the real world or online – ask what them they need from you. Let them know that you are there, you see this violence, and you know that it is not ok. If they ask you to speak to the person who is enacting this violence – only then should you do so. Ultimately intervention is not about you – it is about the person who is already doing so much labour. Ultimately they are the most important person.
Bystander intervention shows the individual being racially and sexually abused that they are not alone, and that the acts of violence they are experiencing are in fact violent and unacceptable. And slowly this will create ripples in the tide of racism that has encased British culture for centuries. Community accountability holds the community to account, and we must all do this more regularly.
As the incredible woman who spoke to the BBC on Thursday morning noted – “I’m not a bank robber. The only thing that’s being robbed here is my freedom”. One of the best ways to ensure that freedom stops being robbed is to directly and physically intervene and support Muslim women.
Other important and active ways to intervene alongside physical acts of intervention are through donating to the Muslim Girls Fence project, which aims to build resilience among Muslim girls in the face of precisely this kind of prejudice and hatred, and telling the world that you stand in solidarity with Muslim women by supporting the ongoing Level Up campaign.
If you would like to find out more about ways to learn about Bystander Intervention, Hollaback! London run regular skillshare sessions.
Molly Ackhurst studied Human Rights Law at SOAS from 2014-15. She has a practice-based background having worked in the specialist sexual violence sector for many years as a frontline worker with Rape Crisis. This combines with her extensive experience as a researcher and activist with groups like Hollaback London and Sisters Uncut. She specialises in transformative approaches to trauma and justice – using arts and workshops to inspire direct action and intervention tackling the roots of everyday human violence’s, bringing about long-term change through creative and immersive projects.