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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 August 2018

UK's May calls for Boris Johnson to apologise over burqa comments

Johnson drew fire for writing that burqa-wearing women look like letter boxes

UK former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote that burqa-wearing women looked like "letter boxes". AP
UK former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote that burqa-wearing women looked like "letter boxes". AP

British Prime Minister Theresa May and other senior Conservatives on Tuesday told former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to say sorry for a newspaper column in which he wrote that burqa-wearing women looked like "letter boxes" and bank robbers.

Mr Johnson, who quit the government last month in a dispute over Brexit, made the remarks in a Daily Telegraph article published on Monday.

Mr Johnson said he opposed banning burqas and other face-covering garments but wrote that it was "absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes".

His article drew criticism from Muslim groups and fellow politicians.

Mohamed Sheikh, founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said Mr Johnson's article had been "totally out of order". Middle East Minister Alistair Burt criticised the former foreign secretary for comments he said "many people would find offensive".

Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis said in a tweet that he had asked Johnson to apologise. Mrs May said she agreed with Lewis.

"I do think that we all have to be very careful about the language and terms we use. And some of the terms Boris used describing people's appearance obviously have offended," she said.

There was no immediate sign that Mr Johnson planned to back down.

Mr Johnson is a former mayor of London and one of Britain's best-known politicians. He resigned as foreign secretary in July, accusing Ms May of killing "the Brexit dream" with her plan to seek close economic ties with the European Union after the UK leaves the trade bloc next year.

The resignation solidified Mr Johnson's position as a leader of the pro-Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, which is deeply divided over its attitude to the EU.

Many expect Mrs May to face a leadership challenge if faltering Brexit negotiations don't improve — and Mr Johnson is likely to be a contender to replace her. Some suspected Mr Johnson's burqa comments were intended to boost his appeal among far-right members of the party.

Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, said Mr Johnson was using Muslim women as a "convenient political football to try to increase his poll ratings".

"These were offensive comments but clever politics," Ms Warsi said. "Boris knew the effect and the impact that this kind of dog-whistle politics would have."

Several European countries, including France, Belgium and Denmark, have banned face-covering veils in public but none of Britain's main political parties supports such a restriction.

"I believe women should be able to choose how they dress," said Mrs May.

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Read more:

Denmark burqa ban: Muslims defiant as ban on full-face veil takes effect

Danish veil ban is thinly disguised racism

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