The stigma of being a Muslim woman: ‘They say we are quiet, easily intimidated and don’t know English’

9 Mins read

November is Islamophobia Awareness Month and despite some people denying that this is an issue, Muslim people are still facing discrimination and unfair treatment.

“Because I wear a hijab, I have experienced multiple hate crimes related to my identity as a Muslim. I have been called a rag head or a p*** several times in the city centre,” said Zaynab Asghar, coordinator of Nottingham Muslim Women’s network.

The network is an organisation that provides support to Muslim women in their community, ensuring that their voices are being heard. Zaynab joined the network in 2017 when she took part in a project where Muslim women got together to design a leaflet that would encourage them to report hate crimes. 

 “As I waited outside a pharmacy in my own neighbourhood, I was yelled at by an old man: ‘There is no place for people like you here, go back home.’ I always tended to minimise those events and I haven’t really taken it to heart. Even with that old man shouting at me, I didn’t shout back at him. I didn’t do anything. I just ignored him,” Zaynab told Artefact.

The leaflet designed by NMWN to spread awareness on reporting hate crime
The leaflet designed by NMWN to spread awareness on reporting hate crime [NMWN]

Words are powerful, so they must be used carefully.  In reporting on religions and communities, journalists have a great responsibility to ensure that they are represented fairly and accurately.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, Islam has been represented unfairly by the media, which has led to a stigma around Muslim people who are often associated with terrorism or oppression.

In general, Islamophobia is fear or hatred of Muslim people, especially when they are viewed as an aggressive geopolitical force or terrorist threat; it is a result of negative stereotypes about Muslims which began in the Middle Ages, and has been present in Western discourse for hundreds of years. Muslim minorities were also described as uncivilised and violent, contributing to European colonial dominance. 

According to a survey conducted by the University of Birmingham in 2021, Muslims are among the UK’s least-liked groups, following Gypsies and Irish Travellers: 25.9% of British people think negatively of Muslims (with 9.9% thinking very negatively). 

Also, British citizens hold prejudices about Islam nearly three times more than they do about other religions, for example, 21.1% mistakenly believe that Islam teaches its followers that the Qur’an must be taken literally.

There are some difficulties associated with symbolic representations of Muslim identity in Western nations due to the relationship between Islam and terrorism. The issue was brought up when a ban on hijab came into effect in some European nations after September 11, 2001 across schools and other state institutions. As a result, non-Muslims may interpret the hijab differently, for example, as indicating Islamist threat, national dissociation, and gender oppression

Zaynab works at an after-school club which is part of a Mosque and one day, while she was attending the club she could hear a man walk past her and say: “You are a terrorist. God is a terrorist. God wants you to kill people.”

“There was nobody else out there and that’s why he approached me. He started shouting at me across the road.” After comprehending what the man was saying, Zaynab decided to not let him get away with what he was saying, so she turned to him and said: “God’s not a terrorist. I’m not a terrorist. If you want to find out about Islam, you come and ask me. Don’t listen to what the media has to say. Don’t watch the news.”

A woman wearing the hijab
The wearing of the hijab has been attacked in some European countries [Unsplash: أخٌ‌في‌الله]

She also told the aggressor that she understands his insecurities and that he is scared, which ultimately broke the ice. Hearing that, the man was surprised by her reaction, expecting her to swear at him and although he didn’t apologise, they were able to have a brief discussion about it.

Because they have a fear that someone is going to physically attack them, Zaynab said that Muslim women don’t usually engage when someone is getting verbally aggressive towards them.

“You just think what’s the best way to diffuse the situation: to get out of this, get out of his way. But he was just saying lots of ridiculous things that I just felt the need to say something,” she said.

Muslim women are most vulnerable to Islamophobic hate crimes and speech – especially if they wear a headscarf – according to the project named ‘Forgotten women: the impact of Islamophobia on Muslim women’, implemented by the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) in 2016.

The Netherlands and France reported in 2015 and 2014 that over 90% and 80% of Islamophobic incidents targeted Muslim women, most of whom wore visible religious symbols.

Khadija Mareef is a Morrocan author based in the UK, and the idea for her to write ‘Muslim Women in Western Societies’ came after she encountered discrimination while she was on holiday with her family in Malta, based on her visibly Muslim identity. 

“There, people were giving me a look when I was at the swimming pool with the kids or by the beach. It felt like they were questioning what I was doing there or that I’m not having the right to be there.  While in a restaurant or walking outside, you can see that people have a lack of exposure and this lack of exposure affects visitors who come there on holiday,” she said.

After having that unpleasant experience, Khadija was encouraged by her husband to start writing everything she felt in a book, so she can share her experience there.

“It is not only talking about my experience in the book but also some motivational and inspiring advice to give to other women when they are moving to other countries and a step-by-step guide on how they can start from zero, how they can keep their identity and achieve their goals,” Khadija told us.

Having written the book, Khadija’s career suddenly took off, and she became not only an author but also a motivational speaker.

Khadija Maaref speaking at East London Business Expo 2022
Khadija Maaref speaking at East London Business Expo 2022 [Courtesy of Khadija Maaref]

“After writing the book, I got invited for different interviews and TV shows because it’s a very interesting and challenging topic for Muslim women living here in the UK or even in Europe and America,” she said.

“People also started calling me to be a motivational speaker and to talk to women who had the same experience but couldn’t overcome it due to the challenges they faced, so I’ve been there talking to them, giving them hope that they can change their life and that if something happens, that doesn’t mean it will keep happening. It’s a woman’s right to fend for herself, speak up, take the lead and change her life basically.”

Stereotypical views of Muslim women are often expressed by the media and public opinion, and these views often portray Muslim women as oppressed or dangerous, without recognising their role as active agents. It is quite common in news stories to refer to violations of women’s rights or use their image to portray Islam as a problem, especially when they are wearing clothing linked with their religion. 

“They say we are quiet, easily intimidated and that we don’t know English,” says Zaynab

As well as telling me why she chose to cover, Zaynab expressed that it was a way of finding herself, and not a result of oppression.

“Yet, after asking myself those difficult questions of who I am, what’s my identity and why I am here, I decided to wear hijab because I believe in God. So from the age of 21, I started covering myself. My identity was given to me by Islam, not Pakistani culture, which I rebelled against. It was my choice and I was the first woman in my family to wear it,” she explained.

“What’s happening in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia is they’re taking the choice away from the women and forcing them to wear it, that’s the problem. And I believe that there’s no compulsion in religion. That person who covers out of fear is not doing it for the love of God. It’s out of fear. And you should not be asked to worship God with a gun to your head. Because this way of worship is not accepted in any way. As a Muslim woman, when I step out into society with my head covered and dress modestly, I’m making a statement and I’m worshipping God in this way.”

Her personal belief is that young women should understand the reason for their covering, not just do it because it’s a cultural requirement, their parents are asking them to do it, or because it’s a trend.

“If you wear the hijab, then you need to know why you’re doing it. Otherwise, it’s just an item of clothing. We need to, as Muslim women, educate younger Muslim women. Why are you wearing the hijab? Don’t let it be a cultural thing. Or if you are wearing it for the sake of culture, that’s fine as well. But then just know the ramifications of that. Cause I think in the past, women have been doing things because it’s culture and then when the religion gets blamed for it.”

Nottingham Muslim Women's Network organising activities for Muslim women, such as "Women's retreat
Nottingham Muslim Women’s Network organising activities for Muslim women, such as “Women’s retreat” [NMWN]

Despite Muslim women facing the same inequalities as other women, such as access to employment, the gender pay gap, domestic violence, and verbal violence, discrimination based on ethnicity and religion may exacerbate their situation.

“The media shows that Muslim women are weak, oppressed, and obliged to wear hijab and that is totally wrong. In fact, it’s a choice I see as I wake up in the morning. Making up my choice by choosing to wear hijab other just like other women open their wardrobes and choose to wear their skirts or choose to wear their dresses,” Zeynab said.

“We have this bad image or reputation, but I believe as Muslim women, we need to send up for our rights, and we need to share more about ourselves and what we can. Because we can achieve the same as any other. We can overachieve as well and we can deliver. So there is no difference between us,” says Khadija

When Muslim women are underestimated due to their hijab, it affects them in the professional field, too.

“For young Muslim women, I would recommend not accepting what people have told you. Go find out yourself.”

Zaynab Asghar

“Some people judge the book by its cover thinking that because you’re wearing hijab you’re not allowed to go to certain places or you are not allowed to be promoted to be a supervisor or a manager because you are wearing a hijab. They are judging me and thinking that I cannot deliver or can manage people because of my scarf, which is totally wrong. However, I prove them wrong, and I’ve been promoted, I’ve been delivering. But I always feel that I need to do extra for people to change whatever they’re thinking about or prove that they are wrong,” she adds.

In spite of people’s belief that women are still oppressed and don’t have rights in their countries, things are changing in those countries as well, with Muslim women being given greater empowerment.

“If I’m talking about my origin as a Moroccan before a woman, we are not necessarily encouraged to speak up and talk about any issue we have or anything we face, but within the last five years, we’ve seen a big revolution in Morocco. Some women now start leading really big roles that they weren’t able to do it before, and they can speak up about any issues they’re facing. They’re supporting each other, which is really good. And I hope they can carry this as well in the near future,” says Khadija

Two Muslim women working in an office.
Muslim women are making progress in business in many countries [Pexels: Cedric Fauntleroy]

Having to deal with stigma as a Muslim woman in the Western world is not easy. For this reason, we asked our interviewees what advice they would give to younger women who may be struggling or having an identity crisis.

“My faith teaches me that when you know yourself, you know your Lord, so make yourself a priority. Try to look at what ways you can increase your self-esteem. You look at what your family and your school have taught you. What is my religion telling me? What are my friends telling me? We all have to come to a point where we find out what is true for ourselves and we have to answer these big questions about ourselves. And then we’re always going to be on a constant journey to find out,” Zeynab said.

They felt it was about finding God and that was determining the rest of her identity: “For young Muslim women, I would recommend not accepting what people have told you. Go find out yourself. And I think that is the journey we all have to go on whatever faith we have. We have to find ourselves to find where we are. We have to be on a constant journey of growth, of being and becoming a better person. And I think it’s something that we all go through, not just Muslim women,” she recommended.

Khadija also admitted that there are a lot of Muslim women who get affected by what other people say and that sometimes they even make it worse for themselves.

“We know society. Some people like Muslims and some people don’t because of whatever they heard from the media and being brainwashed. However, it doesn’t matter. We need to start talking, changing this overview and showing that, as Muslim women, we can be helpful and we can be approachable as well to talk to. Usually, people think that just because we are wearing a scarf, they cannot come and ask you anything. They can, we are all human,  It’s just the difference between us. Somebody’s wearing a scarf and another one is not wearing it.”

As a piece of advice, Khadija recommends young Muslim women face challenges and find out what exactly makes them feel this way, working hard on themselves because their fate and skin colour are not something that determines their worth: “Let’s help each other in business, education, social work and everything else. Let’s help each other. Let’s promote each other and wait for the magic to happen. If we don’t do that, nobody will do it.”

Featured image by Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash
Edited by Mia Lyndon and Hamida Ali

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