Earlier this year a heavily pregnant white British woman was mowed down outside her own home after asking a man to move a car that was blocking her drive. The reason? She was wearing a niqab.
In recent months it has been difficult to pick up a newspaper without seeing a photo of a Muslim woman wearing a face veil on the front cover. From reports involving the legal system, the NHS, schools and even policymakers, a whole host of politicians, commentators and others have been quick to call for institutional reviews or public debates about the wearing of the niqab.
While these stories have been hitting the headlines, I have been leading a team at the University of Birmingham that has been working with Muslim women to try and raise awareness and improve understanding about the high levels of anti-Muslim hate they experience in their everyday lives in today’s Britain. The findings from the project are being launched this week at the Houses of Parliament.
Why is this important?
Research from the past decade has repeatedly shown that Muslim women are more likely than Muslim men to become victims of street-level anti-Muslim hate.
New figures published this week by the government-funded third party reporting service Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) suggests that attacks against Muslim women account for 58% of all incidents reported to it. Of those, 80% are against Muslim women who are visually identifiable, those who typically wear the hijab (headscarf), niqab or other clothing associated with the religion of Islam.
Working alongside MAMA, we were able to identify and interview 20 British Muslim women from a range of different ages and ethnicities that had experienced anti-Muslim hate. Of those interviewed, most wore the hijab, some wore the niqab, one said that she did not feel that she ‘looked’ Muslim.
For the majority of those interviewed, their experience of hate was relatively low-level, primarily verbal abuse in public places that included ‘fucking Muslim’, ‘terrorist’, ‘Mrs Usama bin Laden’, ‘Muslim monkey’, ‘ninja’ and ‘go and eat some pork’.
For others, their experience included intimidation and threats. Lubna, one British Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage awoke one morning to find four decomposing pigs’ heads had been positioned around her family home.
But it was the impact of the experience of such hate crimes that was seen to be most significant. All of those who participated in the research spoke about feeling more scared or fearful. As one put it:
‘[I] cried in the middle of the street... I did not feel safe... I felt fearful and worried about my life.’
Most also felt more anxious and vulnerable when in public spaces. For those who experienced anti-Muslim hate in or around their homes, that anxiety and vulnerability seeped into the most personal and private spaces.
‘It made me think continuously that I need some sort of self-defence class so I know how to defend myself and protect my children... you start to think that something is going to happen’,one participant said.
Some also felt anger and shock,others humiliation and embarrassment.
The impact on their Muslim identity and their visual appearance as Muslim women was also important:
‘It kind of makes you think people hate you because of the way you dress. And then you start linking everything as being anti-Muslim and that may well not be the case.’
Their experience undeniably led to feelings of exclusion and separation, of not belonging to Britain or of being a part of British society. As one of the women put it:
‘Maybe we are hated... I feel we’re not going to be accepted as British, like we’re always going to [be] seen as an outsider.’
Having undertaken this project at a time when Muslim women were repeatedly being spoken about in the press, what became apparent was how rare it was for Muslim women’s voices to be heard.Which is why in the report launched this week, we put the voices of Muslim women front and centre: to give voice to those silent and overlooked stories of discrimination, bigotry and hate that for many are far too real and expected aspects of their everyday lives.
As one Muslim woman told us:
‘I don’t think [people] understand just how it all feels. They’ve got no idea.’
Dr Chris Allen is a lecturer in Social Policy in the Institute of Applied Social Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is one of country’s experts on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crime.