Interview: Muslim Women on the 2017 Acid Attack, Shamima Begum and Misrepresentation

Muslim women in their twenties talk about acid attacks, representation of Islam in the UK and which Muslim women inspire them.

Illustration by Shazmeen Khalid

In June 2017, Muslim cousins Resham Khan, 21, and Jameel Mukhtar, 37, became victims of an acid attack in London whilst in their car.

Their injuries after the incident were agonising. Ms Khan, dubbed ‘aspiring model’ by This Morning, has been through several skin graft treatments since the incident.

Shortly after, Mr Mukhtar had to insist the attack was a racial hate crime which eventually prompted the event to be reclassified as a hate crime. It was also later uncovered that their attacker had published far-right content on his Facebook page.

This is officially the only listed acid attack related to Islamaphobia in the UK but following the incident social media warned the Muslim community to be particularly careful.

This led to widespread fear, particularly amongst young Muslim women. A pamphlet addressed ‘Dear Islamic Friends’ which read: “Kill scum Muslims. Why do Muslim women wear burkas?” was posted around Hanover Square, a largely Muslim area in Bradford near the city centre. The pamphlet threatened to “do acid attacks on anyone who wears the funny black masks”.

Source: BBC

In March 2019, we now see Shamima Begum being stripped of her citizenship. A 19 year old woman that was groomed as a child and has now witnessed the death of her third baby after being refused entry back into the UK.

People have been questioning the way in which she has been treated.

“Under the current rules, since Ms Begum was born in Britain and does not hold another nationality, her citizenship can’t be revoked as she would be rendered stateless in contravention with international law. In justifying Ms Begum’s citizenship revocation, the Home Secretary argued that because her parents are of Bangladeshi “heritage”, it means she can apply for citizenship of that country. The subtext of this new ruling is that if your heritage is not British and you are not white, then you can have your citizenship revoked if you commit an act that is not conducive to the public good. Wake up and smell the coffee.”

Alatenmo, Medium

In February 2019, a shooting range in Liverpool was found to be using an image of Shamima Begum as a target.

Source: The Telegraph

We interviewed five Muslim women in their twenties to discuss their views on the acid attack, representation and who inspires them within their community.

Q: How did you feel in the midst of this particular acid attack and the threats of more acid attacks against Muslim women?

Shazmeen: Although there weren’t acid attacks in my area, the media coverage and reports created an air of mistrust – like every day it could be me next. I mostly felt upset and outraged that the victims had been specifically targeted for being or even just looking ‘Muslim’.

Jasmine: I felt really scared and incredibly paranoid at all times. I avoided leaving my house at all costs and I was concerned for my family’s safety as well as my own.

Saida: I felt glad I didn’t wear a hijab which then made me feel deeply guilty.

Aisha: Being a mixed-race Muslim, people sometimes underestimate how an attack on your religion can make you feel. I was worried about my Muslim family and how society would treat them afterwards.

Q: What became your daily thoughts and concerns?

Shazmeen: Constant fear in different forms. If it wasn’t worrying that another attack would happen, it was that I could be targeted for being visibly Muslim in an area where I was in the minority. If not that, then I’d be scared for my Mum going out alone. I would warn her to be extra vigilant, to keep her phone at hand. I would check up on my siblings and cousins at school throughout the day to make sure nobody had threatened them or followed them en route to school.

Jasmine: That my family and I were a target just because we practice a certain religion. I kept reading a protection prayer to calm my nerves whenever I went outside. It got really bad, to the point that my friends had to persuade me to leave the house.A

Saida: Glad I didn’t look visibly Muslim without my hijab which again made me feel horrible. I felt like a traitor.

Aisha: My routine continued as usual during the acid attack fears, as did the rest of my families. Although it was disheartening to hear of another attack on the Asian community, particularly Pakistanis, this is something over time you learn is unfortunately a part of life and you just continue as normal.

Q: Why is it that you feel like your hijab makes you more vulnerable to an acid attack?

Shazmeen: Its visibility, I reckon. When people see the hijab they automatically see it as an outward display of ‘Muslimness’. The go-to thought for some people is that we’re the enemy and therefore an obvious target.

Jasmine: Because a hijab is a clear indication that you’re a Muslim and it’s therefore also an indication to those who are Islamophobic to harm you in some way – be it verbal or physical.

Saida: If I chose to wear hijab casually, I would be paranoid non-stop because of the current climate regarding Muslims.

Q: Did you continue to wear your hijab after the acid attack?

Shazmeen: Yes, although I constantly doubted whether I should. I remember for a while when I’d go for walks in my neighbourhood, I opted for hats and hoodies to draw less attention to myself. I remember staying up one evening trying styles that looked less Muslim, considering whether I should adopt them. But then I was also held back by the fact that my brown skin would probably still inevitably make me a target.

Aisha: This isn’t applicable to me as I don’t wear a hijab for my own choices. However, members of my family who wear a modern-day hijab and the more traditional burka continued to wear it daily. Muslim religion is based on the five pillars of Islam. One of the pillars of Islam, known as the Shahadah or The Declaration of Faith, means Muslims adhere to their religion and their faith under any circumstances. So during any type of attack on the community, the likelihood is that even if you feel threatened, those Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab or burka will continue to do so to show their faith to Allah.

Q: Did you avoid certain areas or stay home more out of fear?

Shazmeen: I live in a majority white town, I’ve lived here all my life and figured there are certain places I cannot or should not go alone. I regularly take longer routes to avoid walking past pubs and crowded bus stops where previously a family member or I have been heckled at or verbally abused. After one incident with a group of teenagers hurling Islamophobic and racist abuse on my street, I stopped walking to the train station out of fear for about a month and relied on getting lifts because I felt so unsafe on my own.

Jasmine: I avoided East London because the highest rate of acid attacks occurred there.

Aaliyah: The areas that are known as ‘most racist’ I stayed away from, however as my skin colour is light and I have dyed blonde hair I felt more comfortable as I wasn’t the ‘typical’ Muslim girl.

Saida: I stepped well behind the yellow line, back to the wall in the tube stations because I saw a video on Facebook of a guy trying to push a Muslim girl in front of an oncoming train.

Aisha: I did not. Neither did any members of my family.

Q: With all the photographs of Shamima Begum displayed across the newspapers, dressed in her hijab next to the word “IS”, are you scared that anti-hijab sentiment might rise as a result in the UK?

Shazmeen: I feel like the anti-hijab sentiment has always been there. It’s just a matter of what stokes the flames. The constant coverage and images of Begum are of course going to fuel both anti-hijab and in essence anti-Muslim sentiments in the UK. A friend of mine mentioned that her colleague was asked if she was the sister of ‘ISIS BRIDE,’ it just goes to show how the rhetoric alone is fuelling bigotry, and coupled with images of a hijab-clad teenager associated with ISIS, it seems incredibly likely that there will be a rise in hateful sentiment towards Muslim women in the UK.

Jasmine: Most certainly. I get weird stares all the time. Sadly, myself and many other hijabis are nothing like Shamima Begum but I’m sure many non-Muslims would assume otherwise.

Aaliyah: Yes I am, I’m worried for my friends and family who wear the hijab.

Saida: Yes, the media is associating terrorism with women’s choice of clothes.

Aisha: Shamima Begum was failed by many people around her and by society. Not enough was done to stop a young teenager from being groomed by high levels of IS propaganda. As a result, she became a child bride who is clearly desensitised to the on-goings by ISIS, such as walking past a severed head in a bin. However, Shamima wearing a headscarf won’t cause more or less anti-hijab sentiment. The sentiment towards both hijabs and burkas will remain and potentially rise with or without her story in the media, because people don’t understand the true meaning behind the promise made by women to Allah in wearing a headscarf.

Q: What do you say to people when they ask you why you wear a hijab?

Shazmeen: It depends on who is asking and why. Sometimes I’ll give an insightful explanation about physical manifestations of spirituality and faith, explain that the hijab is symbolic in a multitude of ways. Sometimes I’ll shrug and end the conversation. I think over time you learn to gauge when somebody is asking with the hope of finding out something new as opposed to somebody who is asking so they can challenge your response.

Jasmine: That I choose to wear it. I keep it short because I don’t need to explain my personal choice to anyone. If they are so curious – perhaps they should read about it from a reliable source.S

Q: Do you feel like the hijab is often misunderstood by non-Muslims?

Shazmeen: Not always. I feel as if people who have some sort of religion are often quite understanding. Many people understand that head coverings are worn in different ways across different cultures and faiths. Misunderstanding of personal agency and religious agency, from my experience, seems to stem from those who align with secular western-liberalism. Through that lens, the hijab is often associated with oppression and regression. It’s exhausting having to explain that the western stance on progressiveness is not universal nor conclusive for every identity.

Jasmine: Yes. I think many non-Muslims tend to link it to oppression which is not true.

Aaliyah: Yes I do but I also believe that it’s because there’s a lack of education regarding the hijab.

Aisha: Wearing a hijab is a choice that many women make and that it is misunderstood in Western societies.

Q: What are your thoughts on the lack of positive representation surrounding Muslims?

Shazmeen: Most of my writing is about misrepresentation. Muslims are represented but it always seems to be in a lacklustre or half-arsed manner, or in a manner that reinforces already existing negative stereotypes. Truthfully, there will never be a wholly accurate mainstream representation of Muslims because Islam is so vast and diverse it’s impossible to represent its followers in a monolithic way. But it’s essential to challenge misrepresentation in order to create dialogue about Muslim identity which promotes healthier images of us which aren’t reliant on breaking news stories or victim reports.

Jasmine: It’s a shame because Islam has been constantly linked to negativity due to sick-minded individuals who claim the name of a religion that does not endorse their unspeakable actions. As a result, ‘’genuine’’ Muslims – if you would like to call it that – bear the brunt. When we have NOTHING to do with it, whatsoever.

Aaliyah: I think it’s important that there is a more positive representation of Muslims. Many fear they are being judged for the actions of an individual’s behaviour, when really Islam is a very peaceful religion. It’s a shame that we have to receive some of this negative backlash off the back on one person’s horrible actions, when in fact we are just as ashamed and hurt as everyone else!

Saida: It’s bang out of order cos we so cool, fam.

Aisha: It’s really disheartening that there is such a lack of positive representation around Muslims, especially around Muslim women. Muslims should no longer accept the far-right ‘Islam is Evil’ narrative that’s portrayed by the media. Nowhere in the Quran does it state that completing a heinous crimes such a terrorist attack in the ‘name of Allah,’ is something you should do. These acts are completed by such a small minority it’s unfair to blame the rest of the religion. We need increased awareness and diversity to reduce the lack of positive representation and Islamophobia.

Q: Which Muslim women inspire you?

Shazmeen: Those around me who have a positive presence; my mother, sisters and close friends. I’m certainly inspired by the life of Khadijah RA, her hardships and outlook on life give me an immense sense of love and pride in being a Muslim woman, and often gives me the motivation to continue feeling confident in living as a visible Muslim woman in the UK.

Jasmine: Benazir Bhutto (former Prime Minister of Pakistan), Malala Yousafzai, Huda Kattan and Queen Rania of Jordan.

Benazir Bhutto, Source: Time
Malala Yousafzai, Source: Entity
Huda Kattan, Source: Forbes

Aaliyah: Saira Khan from Loose Women, she’s inspired me to be true to myself and not to have to follow all the strict expectations our culture has.

Saira Khan, Source: Youtube

Saida: Warsan Shire – Somali-British woman who wrote the poetry for Beyonce’s Lemonade album.

Warsan Shire, Source: Entity

Aisha: My grandmother and mother both inspire me. My grandmother moved to the UK with four children, no English language skills and no qualifications. She started her own tailoring business, teaching herself and her five children English. Halima Aden also inspires me – a Somali- American model whose first runway was Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5.

Halima Aden, Source: BBC

Co-written and edited by Ruby Hinchliffe

Stephanie has recently completed an English degree and is now focusing on reciting spoken word over tracks she co-produces. She enjoys writing scripts and short stories as well as discussing issues related to mental health, underrepresented voices and feminism.

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