Let us speak for ourselves: five women's experiences of Islamophobic attacks

Muslim women and their clothes, their relationships with men and their place in British society are written and talked about and discussed and debated to death - but rarely are Muslim women included in those discussions themselves. In an attempt to correc

What does it feel like to have your hijab yanked off your head by a man shouting abuse at you? Or to be chased down the street, shouted, sworn or spat at because what you are wearing identifies your beliefs?

These are examples of what are described as anti-Muslim incidents specifically against women. Tell Mama, the government-backed organisation which records anti-Muslim behaviour, has said Islamophobic attacks against women have increased in the aftermath of the brutal killing of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May. It says approximately 70 per cent of the calls it received since then have come from women. Of reported street attacks, 75 per cent have been against Muslim women wearing Islamic dress.

For Andrew Gilligan, who has criticised Tell Mama’s statistics in the Telegraph and accused it of exaggerating Islamophobia, incidents such as “hijab yanking” are “at the lower level of seriousness” because they do not result in physical injury. Nothing has been as critical as the latest incident in France, where a pregnant Muslim woman miscarried last week after two men attacked her, but to entirely dismiss what some women have been reporting in the UK is still deeply undermining to those who have found themselves at the receiving end of unprovoked assault, physical or verbal, simply because of their faith.

Muslim women and their clothes, their relationships with men and their place in British society are written and talked about and discussed and debated to death - but rarely are Muslim women included in those discussions themselves. That’s why I contacted five Muslim women who have experienced varying degrees of anti-Muslim incidents to find out how it has affected them.

Some have been terrified. Others say things are not bad. Some wear the hijab, some don’t. Most asked to be anonymous because they don’t want their family or jobs to be affected by what they say. All are horrified by Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder. None claim their experiences are representative of Muslim women as a whole - if anything, they are tired of being seen as a homogenous group.

Finally, all agree the media doesn’t help. “No one ever lets us speak for ourselves,” one woman told me. Some feel silenced and ignored by the press, not just because of their religion, but because of their gender too. By sharing their views, they hope they will be heard and not disregarded as statistics that some consider to be utterly meaningless. Here are their experiences.

Ayesha

Ayesha, a 32-year-old who works as an IT analyst in London, was verbally abused and followed on a work trip in Manchester, two days after the Woolwich murder.

“I was going back to my hotel after work meetings. There was a pub down the road from my hotel and as I walked past I heard a group of white men shouting things like ‘Oi, Paki’ and ‘Oi, bin Laden.’ I quickened my pace because I didn’t want anything to kick off. I heard footsteps catching up with me. Then I felt my headscarf pulled back and something tugging on my abaya. At that point, I just ran to my hotel, told the receptionist what had happened and asked him to make sure the men didn’t come in. Then I noticed a slit in my abaya - it had been cut. That’s when I got really scared, because I realised the man who followed me had something sharp in his hands. I couldn’t stop wondering, ‘What if?’ I was shaking. I felt incredibly vulnerable. I just locked myself in my hotel room. Now, I worry about my mum going out on her own, and there have been days I’ve been scared to take the tube.

"Ten years ago, I was set upon by eight youths near my university campus. They called me a terrorist and beat me up. My mistake was to fight back; then they urinated on me. They left laughing. I couldn’t stop crying. The university reported it to the police, but they didn’t find them.

"As a visible Muslim woman, I know I’m an easy target. But it’s cowardly to pick on a woman just because of what she is wearing. It’s not just Islamophobia - this is sexism, too. These men saw me as a weak target, and tried to assert their masculinity over me. I wish people could understand you can’t blanket an entire faith just because of a few  individuals who had nothing to do with us.”

Leila

Leila is a 28-year-old who lives in Oxford. She worked as an accountant before becoming a full time mum to two young children.

“I was walking home with my two kids in their pushchair through the park when a white man on his bike came towards me, looked at me, stopped and spat first at me and then at my children. I felt angry, embarrassed, anxious and scared. But more than anything, I felt shock. What upset me more was that he didn’t just spit at me, but my children too. I knew I had to get home, and as soon as I got in, I phoned my husband. Then I called Tell Mama. I didn’t call the police because, well, what would they do?

"This happened the day after the soldier was killed in Woolwich. Since then, I’ve been nervous to go out. I feel people looking at me though I don’t know if I’m being paranoid. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. I’ve been chased off a bus by three women who threatened to beat me up because of my hijab. Everyday I heard comments against me on the bus. I was terrified by what they said they’d do and was too scared to go out on my own. Eventually we moved house because of the threats.

"I take my children to a playgroup in a church every week, and I’ve never even taken them to a mosque. It’s upsetting that just because I wear a headscarf, they might get treated differently. I blame the media. It portrays a distorted image of Islam and makes out all of us are bad. I hope things change for my kids.”

Sophia Ditta

Sophia is 34 and lives in Bradford with her family. Four severed pigs heads were left outside her home.

“A fortnight ago, my dad found a pig’s head by our front door. He called the police to report it. I went into the garden to see if there was anything else, and there was another pig’s head. I smelt it before I saw it. It was foul. The police told us to ‘preserve’ them so we kept them under bags overnight until they could come round. They asked if there had been anything else, and I suddenly remembered two bags in the bushes while I’d been gardening two weeks before. At the time, they were too heavy for me to lift and I never got round to it. So we went into the garden and found two more pigs heads in the bags, badly decomposed. They had been there a month - since just after the Woolwich attack. They smelt foul.

"I’ve never suffered any discrimination. We’re not the most devout Muslims, we don’t really go to the mosque and I don’t wear a headscarf. You wouldn’t be able to tell we’re Muslim. I see this as racism not Islamophobia, because no matter how Western we are, or how integrated into society we are, some people don’t see us as British or English. I think this was someone jumping on an EDL bandwagon. They tried to scare us, but it didn’t work. It hasn’t stopped me or my mum from doing anything. I’m not offended by a pig, though I am offended by the foul smell.

"However, I reported it to Tell Mama, because although the police were sympathetic, they told us it was an isolated hate incident and nothing like that had happened in our area before. But I later told my neighbour who is also Muslim. He had found a pig’s head on his property a month ago too, and reported it to the police then. So it just shows they didn’t listen.”

Mehnaz

Mehnaz is originally from the UAE and was living in America until three years ago, when she came to England with her husband and three children to study for her PhD.

“I was dropping my eldest daughter off at school and was reversing the car when another car blocked us in. At first, I thought I was in the way, so I was ready to apologise but then I saw the two young men in the car were screaming and shouting, pointing at me and gesturing at my headscarf in a very aggressive and threatening way. I was just holding my breath all the time. I felt so worried, and all I kept thinking was ‘Please don’t get out of your car.’” I managed to turn the car around and moved, but I was really scared of what they might do. I didn’t want my children to see. It really unsettled me.

"I’m wondering whether this sort of behaviour will be a long-term thing or whether it will go away. My husband and I lived in the States, and even after 9/11, I never felt threatened. The media coverage of Muslims in Britain makes it worse - after the Woolwich murder, the media was so intensely focused on Muslims that I can see why it made people so angry, even though it had nothing to do with us. But we are not all bad, we are well-educated people who pay our taxes and contribute to the economy. Right now, we need an environment that fosters peace rather than hatred and I don’t think the media is helping.”

Ola Ashi

Ola is a 21-year-old psychology student who was born and brought up in Cardiff. Her parents are from Palestine.

“Because I wear hijab, I always feel slightly more vulnerable. It’s always at the back of my mind that something might happen because of it - but it definitely doesn’t keep me up at night or stop me from living my life.

"In the past, I’ve been followed home and spat at in my car. I often get people calling out ‘Paki go home’ when I’m out jogging. One time I came out my house, and people drove past shouting ‘BNP’. At school I used to get my hijab yanked. I’m not bothered what this is called - whether it’s racism or Islamophobia - as long as it’s tackled.

"But I also know that’s it’s just a minority of people who do this. Muslim people don’t like being generalised, and I think it’s important we don’t generalise non-Muslims too. I have plenty of non-Muslim friends and they completely disagree with this kind of behaviour. On the times when I’ve had to involve the police, like when I’ve been followed or harassed, they were very understanding.

"Since the Woolwich attack, I have felt more concerned but mostly I see people sticking together a lot more. My friends and I, whether non-Muslim or Muslim, text each other to remind each other when there’s an EDL demo going on so we can be safe and stay away.

"The way I see it is I just have to show the best side of Islam that I can. My cousins in Gaza worry everyday about staying alive or being bombed by Israel. All I have to deal with is a few slurs. That puts it in perspective.”

Some names have been changed

Muslim women arrive at the Regent's Park Mosque in London on the Eid Al-Fitr day in August 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.