How Islamophobia Hurts Muslim Women the Most
Violence against Muslims has skyrocketed in recent years, and especially since the Paris terror attacks. For an increasing number of hijab-wearing women, misogyny is combining with Islamophobia to especially toxic effect.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
Zainab Chaudry knows more about Islamophobia than most. As the spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Chaudry advocates for mutual understanding between Muslim-Americans and the rest of the country. But like many other hijab-wearing Muslim women living in Western countries today, Chaudry is still subject to Islamophobic abuse.
"Recently I was in a grocery store parking lot and a guy swore at me and said, 'You're not welcome here, go back to where you came from.' And it's funny, because I was born in Maryland. I am American. So I told him, 'I am home.' But there's this sense, nowadays, that some people in our society don't want to accept Muslims can be Americans too. Those two aspects of our identity are seen as mutually exclusive. If you're a Muslim, then you can't also be American."
2015 was the year that the twin spectres of religious extremism and Islamophobia threatened the cohesiveness of societies across the West. Both forces are connected. As the Islamic State wreaks havoc across the globe, with mass terror attacks in Paris, Tunisia, and Beirut, Islamophobia rises sharply in response. Meanwhile, inflammatory comments from Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz further fan the flames of anti-Muslim hatred.
Islamophobic attacks are at an all-time high. In London, the Metropolitan Police reported a 47 percent increase in the first ten months of 2015. In the USA, CAIR recorded over 70 attacks on mosques in 2015, the highest number yet. And in the week after the Paris terror attacks, British organisation Tell MAMA, which monitors Islamophobic abuse, recorded 115 new cases alone. "We're overwhelmed by the scale of the problem we're dealing with," founder Fiyaz Mughal tells me.
Increasingly, Muslim women are bearing the brunt of the hate. Recent incidents on Muslim women have seen them pushed in front of incoming trains; punched and kicked off buses; and attacked whilst collecting their children from school. And it's Muslim women who wear the hijab most at risk.
"Visible Muslim women encounter the most violence and harassment at a street level," Mughal explains. "There's a definite gender issue here at work when it comes to anti-Muslim hate." He says that 80 percent of the attacks after Paris were on women, and that the reasons for this are partly practical. "There's a visibility factor. It's easy to identify Muslim women who dress in Islamic dress. And also there's the fact that they are less likely to fight back."
Fatima*, 24, moved to the USA when she was a teenager and currently lives in Washington DC. She hasn't always worn the hijab, but noticed that when she did, people "would keep certain boundaries. It's not necessarily negative, but they definitely treat hijabis differently." She experienced her first instance of Islamophobic abuse on a public bus last year, after over a decade living in the States.
"I sat in front of a woman who grew tense and moved seats away from me. I noticed her changing seats, but didn't think anything of it until I caught on she was being abusive. She started cursing out loud and saying 'we' were 'devils' and 'spawns of Satan' and something like that."
In one case, a pregnant Muslim woman was pushing a cart in a grocery store in California and a man rammed the cart into her belly.
The abuse continued for about ten minutes until Fatima's abuser got off at her stop. "As she walked past me I smiled at her and wished her a good evening, to which she responded, 'Fuck you,' and got off the bus." Fatima's first response in this instance was to laugh at her attacker. "Honestly I found it ludicrous, because I can't fathom how a person who knows nothing about me has the capacity to call me names. But if it gets physical and threatening, I would obviously react very differently. I feel things are getting worse generally, which puts me on high alert because I know, as a hijabi, I can be a target."
In Mughal's view, Islamophobic attacks on women point towards deeper structures of gender inequality in our society. "There's something innate in their gender which makes men want to attack them. Because women are the central point of reproduction, of keeping Islamic communities alive and going. In our experience, the fundamental element of Islamophobia is male-on-female violence and abuse."
Chaudry agrees Muslim women are more vulnerable. "In one case, a pregnant Muslim woman was pushing a cart in a grocery store in California and a man rammed the cart into her belly." Fear is spreading in Muslim-American communities. "There's heightened anxiety amongst Muslim women who wear the hijab. I've had parents calling me saying they want their daughters to take off their headscarves at school because they fear for their safety."
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Even when discrimination doesn't cross over into violence, Muslim women are still treated differently. "People assume, because I wear a hijab, that I don't speak English," Chaudry adds. "They speak to me so slowly, and when I respond they go, 'Wow you speak perfect English!' I try to engage these people in dialogue, to explain to them just because I'm Muslim and I wear a headscarf doesn't mean I can't speak English. I'm not that different from them really, I like Star Wars and do many of the same things ordinary Americans do."
Jade Jackman is a filmmaker and activist whose most recent film, Exploiting It, explores the effects of Islamophobia on Muslim women. It was recently screened at the British Film Institute. "It's not true that Islamophobia only affects women, but with Muslim women it manifests in a certain way. People almost fetishize the hijab. One thing that came up in filming is how Muslim women often get asked inappropriate questions about their sex lives, because the perception is that they don't have sex."
Islamophobic attitudes towards women often include a sexual component. "We often see sexualized language used towards Muslim women in street harassment," Mughal confirms. "It's used to demean them, because they're perceived to be very religious. Muslim women also experience sexist trolling online, particularly when they're active on social media."
These are men who go home to their wives, and say, 'I love you, we're equals,' but they go out on the street and opportunistically attack Muslim women.
I ask Mughal about the profile of the typical offender. "White, male, aged 15 to 35. What's interesting is that when we speak to perpetrators they say they'd never normally attack a woman. But they feel like they can target Muslim women, because they didn't see them as female. They've dehumanized them so much that they can't see their identity in a gendered way anymore. The only thing they see is that they are Muslim."
Jackman agrees society needs to look at how Muslim women's religion and gender identity intersect. "We need to talk about how being Muslim has become a racial identity, particularly for women of color. Muslim women aren't composed of one identity, and Islamophobia can be enacted in so many different ways, whether it has a gendered or religious aspect."
The misogyny that underpins much contemporary Islamophobia troubles Mughal deeply. "What I've learnt through my work with Tell MAMA is how Islamophobia can't be separated from wider gender issues.
"There is something in our society affecting a wide group of men. These are men who go home to their wives, and say, 'I love you, we're equals,' but they go out on the street and opportunistically attack Muslim women. He [the attacker] might think he's a good guy, but you scratch that surface, and underneath it is the beating heart of a deeply machismo individual who thinks it's okay to target Muslim women. And that's the problem. However much of an inclusive society you think we are, there's a real chauvinistic streak underpinning it all."
Depressingly, Islamophobia plays into the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups who seek to radicalize moderate Muslims. "[Islamophobic violence is] triggered by what's happening internationally, like Paris, but also nationally and even regionally," explains Dr Imran Awan, the deputy director for the Center for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University. "So if you look at the Rotherham scandal [where predominantly British-Pakistani gangs groomed and trafficked underage girls for sex], we saw an escalation of anti-Muslim abuse locally."
These so-called trigger events are also exploited by the far right. "It's what we call cumulative extremism, which means one extremism feeds another. So as ISIS grows, so does the far right—each using fear and terror to advance their own agendas."
I ask Chaudry whether she thinks things will improve in 2016. "I wish I could say I'm optimistic, but the current climate of anti-Muslim hostility is the worst I've ever seen, even including right after 9/11, and I don't see it improving." She highlights how Islamophobia tends to spike around US election cycles. "We have so many months to go until [the presidential elections] in November, and we know how GOP candidates have a tendency to throw Muslims under the bus to boost their poll rankings."
One shard of light does cut through the fear and hostility. "We have started to see a more pronounced pushback from our inter-faith allies. More people are coming forward and saying Islamophobia is not acceptable. And hopefully these voices will be given the microphone more to shift the narrative away from intolerance. To say that this is not America. This is not who we are. We must stand united."
* Not her real name