Journalist Tasnim Nazeer was the victim of Islamophobia in Glasgow city centre when out shopping with her children. She was verbally abused by a man shouting anti-Muslim slurs, and only escaped unharmed thanks to the intervention of a passer-by.
Her experience led her to explore the enduring issue of Islamophobia. She spoke to three Muslim women in Scotland about their experiences of hatred, and what it’s like to be a Muslim woman living in Scotland in 2020.
Nearly three-quarters of Muslim women in Scotland have experienced Islamophobia.
This shocking statistic was revealed by the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group to tackle Islamophobia, led by Labour MSP, Anas Sarwar. The group is an attempt to help Scotland demonstrate leadership to the rest of the UK and the world in taking action against anti-Muslim sentiment.
However, hate crimes continue. Islamophobia affects Muslims in work, schools and in public. Many Muslims have reported being fearful to leave their homes in case they face verbal or physical abuse and some feel they are outsiders in their own country.
According to research from the University of Bristol’s Dr Nabil Khattab, Muslim women are 71 per cent more likely to be unemployed even when they had the same educational level and language skills as white Christian women.
“They wear the hijab or other religious symbols which makes them more visible and as such exposed to greater discrimination,” Khattab said.
Tasnim interviewed three women about Islamophobia and being Muslim in Scotland. These are their stories.
Sofia Akbar, 35, Falkirk
“I am a secondary school teacher who has experienced multiple incidents of Islamophobia in Scotland. I have had a lot of harassment in my work place where I have been subjected to verbal abuse from pupils. My colleagues don’t judge me for wearing the headscarf and Islamic dress, but when I report Islamophobic abuse that I get from students I have found them to be complacent.”
Sofia describes how she was called a “terrorist” amongst other slurs by students while working in a Scottish school. When she reported it to the headteacher, she was given one week’s notice to leave.
“Instead of trying to tackle the issue I was made to feel that I was the problem and this really made me feel really depressed and impacted me emotionally. I was a temporary teacher and I didn’t have any rights at the time.
“I asked them if they could support me in dealing with the kids to create more understanding about hate, but they told me that they have dealt with it and instead asked me to leave a week later.”
This was not a one off. Sofia says she was told to leave one of the top schools in Scotland after she flagged up anti-Muslim abuse. The school told her they did not need her anymore, but she was replaced by another teacher.
“I feel they did this just so they could get rid of me because the kids were reacting to me so badly. I feel that for managers, I am hard work because they don’t want to deal with Islamophobia and if I do flag it up, I get asked to leave.”
During the 2017-18 school year, Sofia lived in fear that someone might attack her at work due to being visibly Muslim and autistic.
“Every single day I would play out the worst scenarios as I thought someone would attack me verbally or physically. I couldn’t talk to anybody about it because I felt no one would believe me and felt that I have never been validated for having those fears.
“I have never had acknowledgement that I have suffered Islamophobia, apart from my family and sister.”
Many women who have experienced Islamophobia are unaware of the support that is available. In Sofia’s case she did not know who to turn to.
“I didn’t get any support at all and had to subsequently quit my job. It got so bad that my husband told me to stop working because I was being subjected to such hate, but that wasn’t an option for me because I love what I do as a teacher and wanted to carry on despite the hate against me, but was finding it difficult.”
Sofia’s experiences of abuse continued online, leading to police involvement.
“The time that I had to use preparing my lessons for teaching was being taken up with dealing with the online abuse. I felt that I had to deal with it alone at my work place and felt that if my colleagues had supported me it would have helped with the situation.”
The situation escalated to a point where Sofia felt that she was getting “bullied and blamed”.
“I felt that people were thinking it was something to do with me, however this was not the case. I feel that we need to have a diverse range of people from different communities speaking about Islamophobia at work and in schools.”
Sofia believes that the current approach to tackling Islamophobia is “too little too late”.
“We need to teach kids what hate crime is and have more education surrounding it.
“Sometimes students pick up the language from home or from the media but it will make a real difference if there was more education on hate crime.
She worries that her daughter is facing abuse for being a visible Muslim in school, and has struggled to continue her career in the face of such prejudice.
“My daughter has started wearing the headscarf and she is the only one wearing it in her class, but the high school kids ask her about terrorist attacks and whether she was supporting it which makes her feel really upset and uncomfortable.
“I now currently just do supply work because I just can’t get a job and keep getting rejections in interviews and feel this too is also due to being a visibly Muslim woman in Scotland.”
Dr Maryam Khan*, 40, Newton Mearns.
Maryam (name changed) is an assistant professor living in an affluent town in East Renfrewshire. She faces Islamophobia in her professional life.
“I think it is very challenging being a Muslim woman in Scotland. Islamophobia can affect any Muslim woman. I don’t wear the hijab but still get affected by Islamophobia.
“I have found that I have not been shortlisted for jobs for quite some time, despite the fact that I am overly qualified for these roles. I think it’s primarily due to my Muslim name and it is extremely demoralising and it really affects me.”
I think that people need to know about the contributions that Muslims have made to society such as in the fields of science and mathematics. Maryam
Researching Islamophobia, Maryam found a perception among many people in Scotland that Muslims were backward.
“I think that people need to know about the contributions that Muslims have made to society such as in the fields of science and mathematics.”
She refers to evidence showing higher unemployment rates for Muslim women, and the Scottish Parliament report on Islamophobia.
“Muslim women from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds have experienced difficulty in finding a job. I think the cross party group findings are also very worrying especially for the future generation. The rise of the far right in Europe is another significant cause of the widespread rise of Islamophobia that we see today”.
Maryam documents worrying examples of Islamophobia.
“In the Netherlands, anti-discrimination agencies found that 91 per cent of religious discrimination [was] related to Muslims and I can see that there is a link between what we are seeing in Europe and the way Muslims are treated in Scotland”.
She highlights the extreme rhetoric used by on those in power and some media outlets, including Boris Johnson’s infamous “letterboxes” comment about Muslim women who wear face-covering weils.
“I want to see change made and I feel that the governments should introduce targets in tackling this. There should be a press regulator to investigate the way Muslims are reported and more Muslim and diverse journalists should be hired for balance within the mainstream media. The press and the media should publish data on ethnic diverse journalists.”
Maryam also notes that government efforts need to increase in tackling the issue. She mentions the UK Government’s controversial Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy, which has been criticised for disproportionately impacting those of Muslim faith.
“I think the government needs to adopt a proper definition of Islamophobia, for example they have accepted the definition for antisemitism and this is good, but they should also recognise Islamophobia too.
“There should be an inquiry into the government’s anti-terrorism strategy Prevent because it shouldn’t lead to discrimination of Muslims but it is. To be honest I wish we had a better government in place”.
Significant steps, such as blind CVs, are required to overcome the barriers that Muslim women face in the employment world, she says.
Melinda Murphy, 24, Edinburgh
“ I feel more singled out in Edinburgh than I do if I was in Glasgow. As a convert to Islam, I think that one major difference that I have seen since becoming Muslim is that when I didn’t look Muslim living in Edinburgh, I wasn’t judged, but now that I am visibly Muslim, I get treated differently.”
Melinda has seen “evident Islamophobia” when in the supermarket, at the bus stop and in public. When I first got a job in Scotland, I wasn’t covered but since covering I haven’t got a job yet”.
“I think more work needs to be done to combat prejudice”, Melinda says.
“Society as a whole is just not educated enough and does not have any clarity on what it means to be Muslim. Like for example, coming from a completely atheist background to all of a sudden having faith and going from one to the other is completely different and people don’t understand that it is possible and think ‘what has happened to you?’”
Getting support seems to be a recurring issue for many Muslim women. Melinda agreed that she was not really aware of any support for those experiencing Islamophobia, but credits Muslim organisations for helping her.
Society as a whole is just not educated enough and does not have any clarity on what it means to be Muslim. Melinda
Misconceptions of Islam and Muslims in the UK have been exacerbated by the mainstream media, she says.
“When I was non-Muslim, I was seeing how the media portrayed Islam and it was horrific and something you don’t want to be a part of and even feel like running away from. However, as a Muslim it is sad, hurtful and cruel seeing how Muslims are portrayed on television.”
Melinda found some humour in one of the reactions she experienced being visibly Muslim.
“What amuses me the most is when people before speaking to me assume that I don’t know how to speak English and speak really really slowly.”
Photos of Sofia Akbar thanks to Angela Catlin.