On a bustling street of Central London, *S hurried to catch an underground train back home after a long day’s work. For many years, this had been her routine, and on that chilly night in February 2019, she expected no different.
That evening, however, her pride in being able to move freely as a practicing Muslim woman fell apart when her headscarf was pulled by a man at the train station who then assaulted her.
With the first-ever International Day to Combat Islamophobia being commemorated by the UN on March 15, *S, a British Muslim, spoke to Anadolu about the assault she encountered and the racism she has suffered over her religious beliefs.
On that particular night, when she was at the St. James’s Park station in London, a man approached her from behind and stood very close. Uncomfortable, she moved to put distance between her and the man, but he blocked her way and swore at her, then pulling her hijab and pushing her down to the floor, where she slammed her head on the hard tiles.
“I stayed on the floor out of shock; I didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t know I had hurt my head. I didn’t know I was bleeding,” she said, recounting the traumatic incident in an online interview in which she requested to remain unnamed to protect her privacy.
A bystander helped her get back on her feet, as the attacker fled the scene. The police later arrived to whom the crime was reported, along with an ambulance, where the cut she got on her forehead was cleaned and dressed.
A British citizen with Asian roots, *S said this was the second Islamophobic attack she encountered in a span of three months. In November 2018, she was on her way to work in south-west London when a woman in a car beckoned to her. “Excuse me, girl in the yellow scarf …” she said, before swearing at her and her religion, and driving off.
*S says she was left shaken by the incident. “Not only was I upset by what the woman had said, but the fact that (there were) people around her who were staring and laughing. I was embarrassed and humiliated. People should have found it despicable.”
Upon her employer’s insistence, she reported the incident to the police, who considered it a hate crime. These were not the only abuses *S faced for being a Muslim. She has also had schoolchildren pointing at her, calling her, “bloody terrorist” or “you ninja”.
Such incidents have made her realise the need to be careful against the daily risk of Islamophobia. “There are a lot of people with a lot of hatred, and people think it’s OK to hate on Muslims. I have realised I can also be assaulted. I have to be more careful. I can’t be as carefree as I used to be.”
Sympathetic for her fellow victims, *S said: “It’s so unfortunate, and I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who has experienced it. Statistically, women experience Islamophobia a lot more because they have a visual representation through their scarves.”
According to Home Office statistics, around 3,459 Muslims were subjected to religious hate crimes in Britain during 2021-2022, making them the highest number of people — around 42 per cent — to be persecuted because of their faith. In London, hate crimes have spiked, with a 188 per cent rise since 2012-2013, according to the police. The highest number of Islamophobic hate crimes took place in 2017-2018, when 1,667 occurred.
Since then, police have reported an annual decline of 50 per cent in the number of incidents until 2021-2022, when they shot back up 20 per cent in a single year.
Briefly taking off hijab
Following the two incidents, *S decided to stop covering her head for a brief period, as she feared more attacks and discrimination.
“I felt I would be safer if I took off my hijab. So for a small period in my life, unfortunately, I took off the hijab. And putting it on, in the first place, was so hard for me. So, taking it off felt so painful that I had worked (for) something so hard but, due to unwarranted Islamophobic events, I felt my safety was important.”
This decision led to a psychological mess, she said. “I feared for my safety, I feared for my well-being. I feared (that), as a Muslim, I had failed for taking off my hijab.” It was during this time that she realised, in anger, that she could not hide her identity.
During the COVID pandemic, she found in her the courage to, once again, cover her hair. She felt safer since she worked from home during that time.
Today, as she covers her head, she feels more confident and aware on how to tackle hate crimes. “I feel like I am a bit braver again, and able to speak up. I am very aware. People are racist but you have to live your life to the best of your ability.”
For anyone encountering Islamophobia incidents, *S strongly urges them to report cases to the police. This applies not only physical attacks, but also to verbal abuse.
“It’s a really unfortunate situation. Therefore, you must report it. Even if it is the most subtle of things and you have not been physically harmed, if someone has emotionally abused you, someone has done something inappropriately in front of you to make you feel that this is a Islamophobic hate crime, please report it.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.