‘People grab our veils, call us terrorists and want us dead’: What it’s really like to be a Muslim woman in Britain
Islamophobic attacks have been on the rise ever since 9/11, but it is mostly women being attacked, a recent report suggests. Ava Vidal shares stories from British Muslim women who face everyday awful abuse
“It is something I have got used to since 9/11. From being called Osama Bin Laden to Paki-terrorist I have heard it all,” Zab Mustefa, a British Muslim journalist, who specialises in women’s rights and culture, tells me.
Since the terrorist attacks on New York City that brought down the twin towers, it seems life has not been the same for Muslims that live in the western world. Suddenly there was a spotlight shone on Islam when most non-Muslims had barely given it a second thought before.
“Either you’re with us. Or you’re with the terrorists,” announced the then president of the USA George W Bush in a sombre tone at a press conference following the attacks.
And many people decided that all Muslims were against ‘us’. Everything was under scrutiny. Their style of dress, their beliefs, their way of life. People that had never even read the Qu’ran believed they had more knowledge than Islamic scholars.
“Look at the way they treat their women!” is a statement that I often hear. “Forcing them to cover up. Not allowing them to go out alone and controlling everything that they do.”
“What about Saudi Arabia? They don’t even let women drive!”
But it’s a false perception.
I am not denying that there are countries where the predominant religion is Islam where women are treated badly. But patriarchy is the problem, not Islam. In Islam, the rights of women were recognised much earlier than they were in the West.
In any case, we in the UK don’t come up smelling of roses when we examine the inequality between the sexes either. A UN human rights inspector recently declared the sexism in the UK to be more ‘pervasive’ and ‘in your face’ than any country she has ever visited and that included some Muslim countries.
What I find totally abhorrent is the fact that since concern for Muslim women is so often cited, how come they are the targets of so much abuse in today’s society?
A report from the University of Birmingham, ‘Maybe we are hated: The experience and impact of anti-Muslim hate on British Muslim women’, says Muslim women are repeated victims of anit-Muslim hate. It cites verified figures from Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which show attacks on Muslim women account for 58 per cent of all incidents reported to it. Of those, 80 per cent were visually identifiable (wearing hijab, niqab, or other clothing associated with Islam).
I have witnessed some of it first hand. It ranges from pettymicroaggressions to full blown physical attacks. I was told of a pregnant Muslim woman who was pushed down and stomped on last week. She was too scared to go to the police.
“Racist rhetoric from the likes of the EDL and Ukip is definitely making things worse,” Zab continues. “I am definitely feeling more hatred towards Muslims as a result. I went to the police but they failed to investigate, let alone take any action. This was the point, that an EDL supporter was threatening to come and ‘teach’ me a lesson simply because I am a Muslim woman. I have been called many things such as hummus eating, camel shagging, Paki Muslim slut. No joke.”
One lady that preferred to remain anonymous told me: “I was in London, and on the Tube and a group of three well dressed white men were sitting opposite me. One was looking at me singing ‘Kill them all. Kill them.’ His friend pointed out that I could hear him. The guy singing said ‘I don’t give a f**k.’
“On the same day a man in a business suit told me to ‘f**k off’. I was with a white male friend at the time. We both stopped in our tracks and the white guy who swore turned around, pointed at me and said, ‘yeah you!’
“I feel unsafe, my husband told me not to go into London, both of us were worried that I may be attacked or have my hijab pulled etc. He was also really angry with me when I didn’t tell the police, as he said they ought to know that Muslim women are being harassed. I was just shocked because it wasn’t the expected type that you see on EDL marches. It was ‘educated’ people.”
Akeela lives in North West London but when she lived in Hull she often felt that she had to remove her hijab for her own safety. A lot of women have had their hijabs pulled off. She said that she has suffered a full range of abuse from the ‘v sign’ to being called a ‘Muslim bastard’. She also receives a steady stream of Islamophobic tweets.
What’s going on?
Henna suggests a reason for these attacks: “It seems to me this flavour of violence is almost accepted as a ‘cruel to be kind’ compliment to integration to the British way of life, like bullying fat people to help them get healthier. I’m a South Asian looking woman, not obviously Muslim, I don’t wear a hijab or any symbols. I’d consider myself culturally Islamicate or a secular Muslim. The fact that I get Islamophobic street harassment seems in itself a testament to the magnitude of the problem and degree of perpetrators’ ignorance.
“In my experience it has been constant since 9/11 – at school I had my white friends rounding on me asking me why, by being a Muslim I supported OBL [Osama bin Laden]. To which I had to provide some self-denying murmuring excuse in order to quell their fears even though I was barely conscious of Islam beyond using fasting as an excuse to avoid PE.
“I’ve had a man pull up his Transit van in the street to scream ‘Afghan terrorist’. In Trafalgar Square, I had a guy walk in front of me to obstruct my path and then follow me down the street asking why ‘my people’ wanted to destroy the West and telling me I needed to go home. No one in the crowded square felt compelled to intervene.
“It’s the constant and wearing rhetoric that is most difficult. Always having to be on the backfoot – apologetic – because otherwise you’re on Team Evil. And that’s now prevalent in even progressive circles, certainly with people I know as friends.”
Her friend Annabel agrees, saying: “My Muslim identity would be defined very similarly to Henna’s, except non-Muslim people rarely assume I’m a Muslim. This puts them in a supposedly safe space for making bigoted comments [like:]
‘And obviously when I got on the plane I checked no-one looked like a terrorist.’
‘They could have anything under those veils. I’m not gonna get killed in the name of political correctness.’
“A guy I know wrote as his Facebook status that he changed Tube carriage when a bearded man was reading a book written in Arabic script and speaking under his voice.
“I should stress that it’s not even solely white British people who make these comments – it’s also fellow ethnic minorities, though from my experience the really angry rhetoric has come from white British people.Islamophobia is rampant – I must deal with multiple comments every week. It now exists as a social norm that provides a clear context for verbal or physical attacks on Muslims because racists create safe spaces for themselves to validate their own racism – which I see on a near daily basis.”
Sadly with so much Islamophobic rhetoric being used, in some cases by politicians looking to score points by feeding people’s fears, this problem may get even worse. We should be ashamed to live in a society that treats people this way on a daily basis.