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Bullying, Violence, and Verbal Abuse: The Rise of Female-Focused Islamophobia

The terrorist atrocities in Paris have triggered a wave of anti-Islamic hate crimes largely directed at British women.
December 15, 2015, 2:35pm

Illustration by Ella Strickland de Souza

In the week following the attacks in Paris in November, anti-Muslim incidents in the UK increased by around 300 percent according to Tell MAMA, a helpline that monitors anti-Muslim incidents in the country. The majority of these victims—60 percent—were female.

The spike in incidents is significantly affecting the way female Muslims live their daily lives, warns a study by Nottingham Trent and Birmingham City University. Victims are reportedly suffering from a range of psychological and emotional problems including depression, anxiety, and low confidence. Some have even begun taking steps to become "less visible."


"Female-focused Islamophobia is an extremely worrying phenomenon," says Steve Rose, a spokesman for Tell MAMA. "There are numerous factors to consider why this is happening. But one explanation is that the hijab and niqab have become identifiers, which some people relate to terrorism.

"When people see these items of clothing they are quick to make sweeping assumptions. And, sadly, until we begin to tackle bigotry through education I fear that the number of those affected by this will continue to rise."

Madihah Ahmed, a 21-year-old medical student, was recently targeted at a restaurant in Glasgow's Southside while out with her 16-year-old sister and two friends.

"We were just minding our own business when two middle-aged couples came and sat near us and immediately started sniggering and laughing," says Madihah, who hopes to become a GP. "I then overheard the woman say, 'Why doesn't she take that veil off her face, is she to ashamed to show it?' I'm quite used to this kind of thing so I just continued eating.

"Later in the evening I needed to use the bathroom but was too afraid to go alone so I went with one of my friends. As soon as I entered the toilet all I heard was screaming. I ran back to the table and the four fully-grown adults had surrounded my sister and one of the women was yelling, 'Get that fucking piece of shit off your face you stupid little bitch.' All four then began shouting at me. None of the customers or staff helped us. When they eventually left us alone we tried to order some food but the manager refused to serve us."


"Females who wear the hijab are very visibly Muslim, which is one of the reasons they are attacked more than men," says Masuma Rahim, a writer and clinical psychologist based in London. "But it's also important to remember that there's a gender dynamic to this. It's easier to target a female because they are less likely to fight back, verbally or otherwise. It's essentially a way of targeting someone without any real risk to the perpetrator. It's cowardly and is akin to bullying in my view."

For Madihah, this treatment is a regular part of her everyday life. "These kinds of incidents aren't one-offs, they're almost routine," she says. "And they're definitely becoming more common. I was recently in a supermarket when an old man and his granddaughter walked past. When the man saw me he yanked the little girl away and said 'Don't go near her.' I've also had a bottle thrown at me on the bus and have even received abuse from patients I've been helping in hospital. Does it make me scared? To say that I'm not would be a lie. I'm afraid to go anywhere by myself and always have to drag someone with me."

Not all attacks are aimed at women or take place "in public." A large number of incidents also happen online, mainly in the form of Facebook messages, memes, or Twitter hashtags, such as #KillAllMuslims, which went viral in the UK in January. However, over 70 percent of incidents reported to Tell MAMA in the week following the Paris attacks were street-based. Furthermore, about a third of cases took place on buses, trains, and the London Underground. And females appear to be particularly vulnerable. Of 16 verified incidents of hate crime recorded on public transport in 2014, 13 were directed at women. And men were responsible for over 70 percent of the attacks.

In November, 23-year-old Ruhi Rahman was threatened by a man on a busy Newcastle train, who told her "you're bombing different countries and don't deserve to be here or in this country." The man was forced off the train by other passengers. In the same month, footage emerged of a woman wearing a hijab being pushed into an oncoming London Underground train. And in early December, Tell MAMA received a report concerning an assault on a niqab-wearing female who was punched twice by a man on a London bus.

The recent terrorist attack in Paris isn't the only event to trigger a rise in Islamophobia. After terrorist-related incidents, it is common to see a surge in religiously-aggravated hate crimes in the UK. In the three weeks following the 7/7 bombings in 2005, such incidents rose from 40 to 269. In the three months following the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013 the number grew from 73 to over 120. And in the week following the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 the number of anti-Muslim incidents more than tripled.

"It is clear that national and international terrorist events have an impact on anti-Muslim prejudice and hate incident reporting," says Tell MAMA director, Fiyaz Mughal. "And sadly, it is visible Muslim women who are the ones being targeted for abuse and on occasions, threats and physical intimidation. This should be seen for what it is: anti-Muslim prejudice and male-on-female aggression and intimidation."