It has been clear for many years that women are disproportionately targeted by Islamophobic abuse, with attacks seemingly more likely on women who look ‘visibly Muslim’. To investigate this, the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with Tell MAMA, carried out research with female victims of anti-Muslim prejudice. While the women’s accounts were extremely concerning, Government does not yet seem willing to recognise the gendered dimension of Islamophobia, preferring instead to focus on attacks on religious premises.
This article is part of a series on Muslim women in Britain.
For more than a decade, my research into Islamophobia has shown the existence of a very real gender dimension. From the backlash against Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 across EU countries to the dramatic rise in street-level attacks against Britain’s Muslims following the murder of Lee Rigby last year, Muslim women have been the disproportionate targets for abuse, bigotry and hate. Many have been repeatedly – and for some, routinely – spat upon, abused, threatened with violence and violently assaulted. The likelihood of this happening dramatically increases if you happen to be a woman who ‘looks Muslim’ as a result of wearing a hijab, niqab or other form of traditional Islamic clothing. Yet as Chakraborti and Zempi rightly note, not only has this gendered dimension been largely overlooked, but so too have the voices of Muslim women themselves.
From working closely with Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) – the third party reporting service for victims of Islamophobia hosted by Faith Matters – it became evident from its verified data that the gender dimension of Islamophobia continued to be evident in the contemporary setting. From data collected between 2012 and 2013, attacks on Muslim women were shown to account for 58 per cent of all incidents, of which 80 per cent were linked to being visibly identifiable as Muslim. Recognising this, a small research project was conceived in collaboration with Tell MAMA that sought to engage some of those British Muslim women victims to find out more about their experience but so too the impact it had on their everyday lives.
“One woman ‘[L]ooked out of the window to see that four decomposing pig’s heads had been positioned around the house’.”
From speaking to twenty women, it was clear that the majority of incidents were low-level incidents of verbal abuse: ’fucking Muslim’, ‘terrorist’, ‘Mrs Osama bin Laden’, ‘Muslim monkey’, ‘ninja’, ‘go and eat some pork’. Beyond the verbal, others spoke about how they experienced intimidation and threats. This occurred in public spaces (‘the men proceeded to violently punch their legs as if punching my face’) as also the women’s own homes (‘I looked out of the window to see that four decomposing pig’s heads had been positioned around the house’). A handful experienced more extreme forms of violence, either against the individual or family members. These included a seven month pregnant woman who was verbally abused and then run over by a man who threatened to ‘pop you Muslim’, and another who was attacked in her home along with her brother by two men wielding bicycle chains.
I was really scared and frightened. The negative pictures and feelings kept coming into my head…it kept playing in my mind.
[I] cried in the middle of the street…I did not feel safe…I felt fearful and worried about my life.
Most also felt increasingly anxious and vulnerable in public spaces. For those who became victims in or around their own or family homes, that anxiety and vulnerability seeped into the most personal and private of spaces also:
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.
Others felt anger and shock, some humiliation and embarrassment.
Like all forms of hate crime, Islamophobia symbolically targets the identity of the victim. Because of this, it was maybe unsurprising that the women interviewed spoke about how their experiences made them reflect on both their Muslim identity as also the way they dressed. None however changed their appearance.
“Whilst knowing that the vast majority of people are not Islamophobic, the women’s experience cultivated a sense of doubt where they saw anyone of being capable of being the perpetrator.”
Change though was evident in the women themselves, many speaking openly about the sense of paranoia that ensued:
It kind of makes you feel like somebody is ready to attack you in the street…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. For example, some people give you a look which may be nothing but…
It is the final ‘but’ that is maybe most telling. As with many of those interviewed, whilst knowing that the vast majority of people were unlikely to be Islamophobic, their experience seemed to cultivate a very real sense of doubt and suspicion where not only did they genuinely fear becoming a victim once more but also increasingly saw almost anyone of being capable of being the perpetrator:
[I]t just makes you paranoid…you start to think that everybody has the potential to insult you.
I used to think that everyone is OK with us. But now something like this happens and it challenges what you think. I don’t think [people] understand just how it all feels…
The findings from the research were launched in November last year in conjunction with Tell MAMA at the Houses of Parliament. In doing choosing this setting, the launch had two objectives: first, to speak to those in the public and media spaces about Islamophobia and the ongoing victimisation of Muslim women, to give voice to those at times silent and overlooked stories in order to challenge their invisibility; second, to speak to those in the political and policy spaces about the very real detrimental consequences of failing to tackle and take seriously the threat posed by Islamophobia.
Less than a month later, the Government acknowledged the seriousness of this threat in its Extremism Task Force report. Whilst welcome, it was unfortunate that the gender dimension and the ongoing victimisation of Muslim women were again overlooked in the report – which preferred to highlight the tragic murder of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham and the bomb attacks on mosques in the West Midlands. It seems that Muslim women victims of Islamophobia will necessarily continue to be invisible for at least the time being.
Chris Allen is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. Having been researching Islamophobia and other issues relevant to contemporary Muslims communities in Britain for more than a decade, he has published widely on the topic including his 2010 monograph ‘Islamophobia’ (Ashgate). In recent years he has given oral and written evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia and sits in an independent capacity on the Cross-Government Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group.
 Chris Allen and Jorgen Nielsen. Summary Report on Islamophobia in the EU after 11 September 2001 (Vienna: EUMC, 2002).
 Haroon Siddique. ‘Woolwich murder: 200 Islamophobic incidents since Lee Rigby’s killing’, The Guardian, 28 May 2013.
 Neil Chakraborti and Irene Zempi. ‘The veil under attack: gendered dimensions of Islamophobic victimization’, International Review of Victimology 18, no. 3 (2012): 269-284.
 For more information about Tell MAMA see, http://www.tellmamauk.org
 Nigel Copsey et al. Anti-Muslim hate crime and the far-right (Middlesbrough: Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies, 2013).
 Chris Allen et al. Maybe we are hated: the experience and impact of anti-Muslim hate on British Muslim women (London: Faith Matters, 2013).
The image of the iftar meal is included courtesy of the US Department of State and is free of copyright restrictions.