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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.