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How Street Harassment and Islamophobia Create an Unsafe Environment For Muslim Women

How Street Harassment and Islamophobia Create an Unsafe Environment For Muslim Women

It doesn’t feel safe being a Muslim woman anymore.

This might be the first time you’ve seen those words written on a screen, or maybe this is a well-established statement you’ve come to accept as fact. Either way, it is becoming more and more impossible to deny how scary it is at the moment to identify as both a woman and a Muslim.  We are easy targets in this country — politically and in our everyday lives — especially with such a stark number of Islamophobic hate crimes that seem to be growing by the day. 

Racism and Islamophobia can often feel too distant of a topic to grapple with, particularly if, like me, you spent your youth in a multicultural city, truly believing that Allah made us all equal. It’s sheer naivety, of course, but even as a grown adult it is difficult to document what exactly happened to public discourse after 9/11 and how Muslims became public enemy number one. There is a vulnerability that comes with being a woman in such a patriarchal society, and this is only increased by belonging to a faith that seems to be hated and attacked by both “friends” and politicians alike. Islamophobia is mentioned in the news, Islamophobia is mentioned in family discussions, but Islamophobia still doesn’t feel like something that exists on your very doorstep, or on the streets of the places you once called home. 

There is a vulnerability that comes with being a woman in such a patriarchal society, and this is only increased by belonging to a faith that seems to be hated and attacked by both “friends” and politicians alike.

This is why, the first time someone verbally attacks you on the street for being Muslim, you feel more shock than any other emotion. You find yourself wanting to ask the man to repeat what he just said, even though you know it was something along the lines of “go home” and calling you a terrorist. You want to ask that lorry driver what exactly it was about your hijab that gave him permission to joke about what’s underneath and seek clarification about how true his threat was about pulling it off. Or perhaps your first experience of Islamophobic harassment wasn’t so clear; perhaps it was just a funny look and a frantic scuffle to other side of the road. But it still left you feeling sick to your stomach with anxiety, questioning when exactly your faith coincided with making you a walking target for abuse. 

Islamophobia is legally considered a hate crime, and street harassment has now been deemed a genuine form of gender-based violence, but the intersections between the two are almost never part of our discussions on how to end both issues. People are quick to turn a blind eye on how racial and religious oppression can also interact with sexism, and how sometimes these multiple forms of oppression make the abuse you are subjected to significantly more insidious and dangerous. As a woman living in London, I learnt to accept that verbal abuse was a risk I ran every time I left the house; as if to say that catcalling, wolf whistling, and being followed were somehow a rite of passage society decided I had to accept. As a Muslim woman, however, my fears are only amplified, and almost every time I leave the house, I find myself afraid of both verbal and physical violence. From acid attacks to violently ripping off someone’s hijabs, the way Muslim women are targeted is different, and must therefore be tackled from a much more intersectional perspective. Anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia, and feminism should go hand in hand, but this isn’t always the case, leaving Muslim women unsure of who exactly to turn to in their times of need. 

Islamophobia is legally considered a hate crime, and street harassment has now been deemed a genuine form of gender-based violence, but the intersections between the two are almost never part of our discussions on how to end both issues.  

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Personal safety is the most pressing problem created by street harassment, but more recently I have realised that much darker and more complex issues come into play when you are attacked on the basis of your religion. Islamophobia has made me question what it means to be Muslim, or rather what it means to look Muslim. Your faith is not determined by your physical appearance, but I have become painfully aware that there are scenarios in which I fit closer to society’s rigid definition of Islam that I cannot change. Public rhetoric on Islam is toxic, but it is this same rhetoric that is absorbed by the common folk and used to create mental images on what a Muslim must look and act like. Wearing a hijab is a personal choice made between a woman and Allah, and for most women, it isn’t a political statement, or something worn to attract attention, let alone harassment and verbal abuse. Wearing a hijab is not what makes someone Muslim, but it is what makes them an easy target and obvious choice for directing one’s hate. As Muslim women, the stereotypes surrounding us are of subservience and silence, making us the perfect victims who simply don’t know how to fight back. It amazes me how I feel more unsafe walking home from the mosque with my mother than I do coming home late at night. I am not any more or less Muslim in either of those scenarios, but as my visibility as a Muslim increases, so do my fears surrounding my safety. 

Once you’re able to see the heavily racial and anti-Muslim dialogues around you, it impossible to ignore and see things as innocently as you used to. It is equally as impossible to ignore the male gaze in our society, when all of our actions seem to be dictated and critiqued by the dominant male forces around us. I often find myself guilty of caring too much about how men might perceive me, as I know that the over-sexualisation of the female body almost always ends in dire consequences for us as women. The male gaze is unavoidable, and the sheer fact that 80% of schoolgirls have been harassed on the streets gives a true insight into how pervasive and intrusive it actually is. The idea that Muslim women — and in particular hijab-wearing women — are somehow exempt from unwanted sexual attention is a lie that needs to be challenged because it is clearly untrue. Perhaps the type of attention changes, perhaps the method of street harassment differs, but it is harassment, nevertheless. Exoticism, fetishization and outright racial abuse – call it what you will, but it is happening, and it needs to stop. 

There is a voice that needs to be heard from the Muslim ummah surrounding gender-based violence and its common place on our streets.  The statistics on sexism are abundant, and thankfully the information on Islamophobia also seems to be growing, but I am yet to encounter a piece of data that encapsulates the two.  Our voices and our stories need to be heard, as it is only by speaking out that we will free ourselves from the oppression that entraps us. As Muslims, we should be empowered by our faith, not degraded, and it is up to us to take back control and define ourselves as we see fit. 

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