"Why not just wear a burqa": Experiences of ethnic minority women writing online

Five ethnic minority writers share their experiences with Asiya Islam.


The figure that only five per cent of national newspaper editors are women, from the recently released report ‘Sex and Power’, has been doing the rounds. What we haven’t heard so much is that of those five per cent, all are white women and indeed, of the 95 per cent men, all are white men. There are no ethnic minority national newspaper editors, at all - it’s a shocking, but probably not a surprising, figure that reflects the picture in the rest of the media. It’s a figure that also indicates how small the chances are of an ethnic minority woman expressing her opinion in mainstream media. The term “minority within a minority” comes to mind. But what happens when she does?

When I started writing online, any exhilaration I felt at seeing my name on the screen died with the many put downs I received in comments. Though I was aware of the extent of online misogyny, I still wasn’t prepared to be personally (and often quite randomly) attacked. Most women writing online will easily be able to recount rape and murder threats, sexist comments on their appearance and, to use that horrible term, “sexual capital”, and disdain for their “womanly” (probably hysterical, illogical etc) opinion. I was told to “calm down”, asked what I was wearing, and informed that men would enjoy it if I dressed like a slut, but there was also a racist undertone (sometimes not so much of an undertone as blatant racism) to most comments I received.

First, there was the general sense that I shouldn’t be talking about the UK since I don’t really belong here and that my opinion stems from my “back home” experience, mentality and relatives and that’s where I should keep it. And then there was the very loaded suggestion, with so many possible meanings that I wouldn’t be able to go into here, that I should wear a burqa – a suggestion, I understand, entirely based on the assumption derived from my name that I’m Muslim, since I’ve never specifically mentioned my religion (or the lack of it) or written on religious issues. It’s also worth stating that these examples have been picked up from comments on a moderated forum.

This got me thinking about the specific ways ethnic minority women are shut up in mainstream media. So, I put out a call for ethnic minority women writing online to learn of their experiences and the responses told the story I suspected all along. Interestingly, many of them felt, and I agree, that being ignored was the commonest and probably the strongest form of online racism. This contrasts with the often very graphic misogynistic threats women receive, but indicates the way experiences of ethnic minority women writing online are specific and “exclusive”.

From being likened to a boy in Patak’s curry advert, told that they’ll “hang high”, and questioned over their faith/religion to being completely ignored, ethnic minority women are silenced in mainstream media in many ways. Five ethnic minority women writers/bloggers share their experiences.


Bidisha is a writer, author and broadcaster

While the vast and overwhelming amount of hate mail I receive is openly and viciously misogynistic (rape threats, gendered and objectified personal abuse, abuse of feminism generally and what I call medieval misogyny: accusations of madness, badness, hysteria, shrillness, lying, troublemaking and so on whenever I whistleblow) there is always an undertow, although in the minority, of racism. Oddly enough I am often called a race traitor (no idea why) and the open-access sites, like the now-defunct Don't Start Me Off, were openly racist: idiotic comments about whether I looked like the boy from the Patak's curry advert and so forth.

The strongest racism, which I experience both in mainstream culture and in the trolling non-culture of the internet, is simply to ignore non-white people and their voices, ideas, opinions, work and experiences, except when these voices corroborate existing stereotypes. This is perpetrated not only by anonymous insulters but the broader culture - which is why, even in this diverse and globalised world, you will watch your way through this year's Oscar nominated films and struggle to see a non-white character who is not a maid, a slave, a comic stereotype or a criminal stereotype.

But if you've made woman-haters angry then you're doing something right. They are angry because they have been challenged, their privilege questioned and their cover blown. It makes me laugh because I write about how much women are hated in society and all the trolls very accommodatingly, and with absolute transparency and no self-awareness, prove it. Trolls certainly have not, cannot and will not silence me.

Soraya Chemaly

Soraya Chemaly is a feminist media critic and activist

I write frequently about this topic (most recently The Digital Safety Divide). However, your recent post [the call I out for ethnic minority women to share their experiences] intrigued me  because commenters will often make assumptions about me based, as is always the case, on how I look and what my name is. So, in addition to the egregious threats and truly hateful messages, I occasionally get the "go back to Africa" or "go back to Arabia or wherever you are from." The first threat I ever got was one that said I would "hang high" which I wasn't sure whether to take as an actual suggestion of lynching.

I think that being told to "go back" to wherever I came from, "Africa or Arabia" might fit the description of sexist racism. The implication, of course, being that a) women of colour do not belong here (the US) or b) feminists (regardless of hue) cannot be "real Americans".

However, it hasn’t impeded me. It just makes me angry because it’s bullying, pure and simple.

Huma Qureshi

Huma Qureshi is a freelance journalist. She writes frequently for the Guardian

The only time I get the abuse, so to speak, is when I write Islam-related pieces, because then it puts me in the spotlight as Muslim, whereas I don't think people pick up on that on any of the other more newsy features I might do. The worst of what I've received has been when I've been emailed abuse, so it arrives in my inbox, rather than them saying it below the line in front of people to see. I've mentioned that in this discussion on online Islamophobia.

I've become a lot more careful about what I choose to write about. It's not because I'm afraid, it's just because sometimes you have to weigh up whether it's worth it. I have to consider how much I reveal about myself, I guess. But, it's not all bad. The last piece I wrote that drew attention to my Asian background (as well as Muslim background) was about my experience of Christmas and how much I love it.

I was expecting to get slaughtered in the comments, but they were mostly really nice, although there were as usual those who think I'm way too liberal...

Huma Yusuf

Huma Yusuf is a commentator on Pakistani politics and society for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and the International Herald Tribune

Like other women writers I’ve had people respond to my articles with misogynistic comments – rape threats, flirtatious comments, comments about my photographs online (either good or bad), marriage proposals, or questions about my marital status and sex life as a way to intimidate me. This happens about 5-10% of the time (the comments on my articles for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and the Latitude blog on the New York Times are moderated, so I don’t know what’s being censored out there, this percentage reflects the emails I receive directly). But this is more generic to being a woman online, rather than an Asian woman.

Because I write about Pakistan and its politics and society, I face online feedback about my Islamic credentials. On Twitter, in blog comments, and in email, I’m frequently asked whether I’m  Muslim, what sect of Islam I’m from, whether I’m God-fearing, whether I’m a true believer who has lost her way, whether I realise that my godlessness reflects poorly on my parents etc. I’m also told that the woman’s place is in the home and that I shouldn’t be writing. This is usually in response to articles about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or articles about the mistreatment of religious minorities within Pakistan.

Sam Ambreen

Sam Ambreen is a former advocate working with survivors of domestic abuse, now an activist seeking to empower and protect the rights of women

My experience of writing/tweeting online is possibly more positive than most BME (black and minority ethnic) women in that I have a network who support me if I do ever run into trolls and the like. I have had people accuse me of using the race card before I've even opened my mouth which immediately reveals them for the bigots they are. Men seem to think it ok, or they used to before I told them to back off, to praise me or remark on my intelligence or politics as if they've never experienced anything like it before; it's patronising and again, an early warning bell for a pre-emptive block.

I wrote a piece called ‘White Feminists: Now will you listen?’ and it received a lot of attention. I was stunned to be confronted by a white woman who was offended by the title and said she often fought for the rights of 'other' women but felt she ought not bother if that is what we thought of them. She actually wanted gratitude. And some of the feminists I knew actually defended her. Apparently she was a nice person and it was all a big misunderstanding. Also many people make the assumption I'm younger than I am or at least, it feels like they're talking down to me. She repeatedly used the word girl to refer to me; I'm a 30 year old woman for the record. They think of us as those poor women suffering those savages from that strange place over there. They fail to understand that oppression is the same everywhere, only the methods differ.

In a Twitter conversation about rape, a man randomly jumped into it and, defending another man, said “Before you accuse him of racism, he’s right.” The implication here obviously was that, being an ethnic minority person, I was bound to bring up the ‘race card’ to defend myself. I was not expecting it all and was completely unprovoked.

I am lucky to be part of an intersectional crowd on Twitter. If anything offends, I deal with it by linking to it and discussing among people I trust. They also provide back up if I do get into an argument. My advice to BME women or in fact anyone other than white middle class is to seek out intersectional feminists and build networks.


Women in Pakistan taking computer classes. Photograph: Getty Images

Asiya Islam is a feminist blogger and currently works as equality and diversity adviser at the London School of Economics. She tweets as @asiyaislam.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.