"Why do you look so ugly... why are you covering your face?"
A month or so ago when newspapers were screaming headlines about 'banning the niqab' and politicians were calling for national reviews into the wearing of the niqab in schools, hospitals and the courts, I was writing up the findings from a piece of research I lead over the summer that sought to better understand the experience and impact of anti-Muslim hate on British Muslim women. The comment above is an example of the actual abuse one Muslim woman received; the comment below another:
"he tapped me on my head, making remarks about my hijab...[before] talking about how immigrants and Muslims are taking benefits from him"
The research was deliberately small-scale and low-level. It didn't set out to make any outlandish claims, to be in any way sensationalist or even begin to tell politicians, policymakers or indeed anyone else what they ought to be doing.
Instead, it set out to give voice to those women whose experiences and stories were all too routinely being overlooked or dismissed not least because they just weren't being heard. By doing so, we hoped that the findings might prompt a different debate about Muslim women, one that spoke to and was inclusive of them rather than merely spoke about or even worse, just for them.
"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"
Writing up the findings from the research made me wonder to what extent politicians and policymakers, media commentators and others actually ever spoke to Muslim women.
"[I] cried in the middle of the street...I did not feel safe...I felt fearful and worried about my life"
Similarly, it made me wonder whether they ever sat down and chatted to Muslim women about what it was like to feel scared and vulnerable in their own homes let alone the common street; to feel threatened and fearful of attacks on their families, their children, themselves.
"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"
It made me wonder whether they ever sat down and listened to the all too real stories told by Muslim women, about being abused, spat upon, pushed and shoved, ridiculed and humiliated just for being Muslim, for wearing a headscarf or face veil.
"terrorist", "Mrs Usama bin Laden", "Muslim monkey", "ninja", "go and eat some pork"
It made me wonder whether they ever sat down and listened to those Muslim women whose experiences of anti-Muslim hate went beyond the relatively low-level, those who became victims of threatening behaviour, intimidation or violence.
"I was really scared and frightened. The negative pictures and feelings kept coming into my head...it kept playing in my mind, thinking if [the bottle] had hit me on the head"
I concluded that most probably hadn't.
The findings from our research - launched at the Houses of Parliament later this week - approaches Muslim women in a completely different way to how many of those in the media and political spaces currently do. Instead of talking about or for Muslim women, our research puts the voices of Muslim women front and centre: to give voice to their silent and overlooked stories of discrimination, bigotry and hate, stories that for many are far too real aspects of their everyday lives.
More real that is than the newspaper headlines asking whether to ban or not ban the 'burqa'.
As one Muslim woman told us:
"I don't think [people] understand just how it all feels. They've got no idea."
I have to agree.
The full report - "Maybe we are hated": the experience and impact of anti-Muslim hate on British Muslim women - can be downloaded from here. The research was a collaboration between The University of Birmingham and Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim attacks).
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